The welfare system is set for its biggest shake-up in living memory following the Chancellor's review of public spending.
George Osborne announced last Wednesday that an additional £7bn would be slashed from the welfare budget, leading to fears that people already living below the poverty line would be tipped into a desperate battle for survival.
The Chancellor made it clear that a new cap would be imposed on benefits to ensure that families or individuals who do not work could not receive more than the average person would in employment. Benefit levels are set by the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Executive has no power to vary them. It is estimated that up to £200m could be lopped from the benefits' budget here, although it will be some time before the changes work their way through and the exact level of pain to be endured is finally revealed.
We spoke to four people who depend on state benefits to get by and here are their accounts of their daily lives and their fears for the future.
Unemployed Harry McGreevy (49), Belfast
Harry has four grown up children. He says:
I was made redundant 26 months ago. I've had various jobs like working in a petrol station and so on. The New Deal scheme helped me to get my forklift licence so the last job I had was as an operator in a warehouse. Unfortunately the recession hit so, as I was the last person in, I was the first to go. I couldn't even renew my licence to look for another forklift job because the New Deal funding had been stopped.
Since then I've been on Jobseekers Allowance and I also get my rent of about £70 a week paid with housing benefits. It gives me £65.45 a week to live on and from that I have to pay everything from food to bills to heating.
The flat I live in has Economy 7 heating which can be expensive so some weeks I have to toss a coin to choose between food and heating.
I've been on a lot of courses and different programmes in the last couple of years. Some of them were useless. I was the oldest on a computer course along with another guy and we were more or less expected to get out of the way for the younger ones.
Other companies have been much better though, like Gems NI who have provided me with a lot of career advice. In the last year alone I've achieved 12 qualifications to help me find a job.
The problem is that nine out of ten jobs around at the moment are part-time and if I took one of those I would barely be able to cover my rent never mind eat.
I look online and in the papers every day for any kind of of job. I've got lots of qualifications in the past couple of years in everything from computers to communications to security jobs. I think my age has a lot to do with it though — younger people are getting the jobs first.”
Pensioner Ivan Baxter (70), Belfast
Ivan is a widower. He receives £98.65 in his state pension and a one-off £250 winter fuel allowance payment every year. Ivan says:
The two benefits I currently receive are my state pension and my winter fuel allowance. I had a career in the civil service before I retired, so I receive a public sector pension too.
However, one of the things I'm anxious to say is that unless you've worked in a top civil service job, these pensions are really quite modest.
In light of this, I personally feel that I have enough money to live comfortably.
Others struggle by solely on state pension however, with many pensioners having a lot of trouble trying to make ends meet.
The current state pension is £98.65 per week per person, or just over £165 for a couple.
On top of their state pension, senior citizens are also able to apply for pension credit, though a large number don’t know they can get this extra benefit, or they don’t apply for it.
The application process is a means-based system that indicates that they may be entitled to more money than they actually receive.
We know that around half of the people entitled to pension credit don't claim it.
There may be a variety of reasons for this. It can be a complex process, but if people need help to apply, they can contact the Citizens Advice Bureau.
Through the Access to Benefit organisation they can also find out just how much they're entitled to.
One of the things we also find with pensioners is that there's an element of pride involved. Pensioners wish to be independent, have a family life and pay their own bills and they may see applying for pension credit as a challenge to their independence, but it's their money. They are entitled to it.
Winter heating allowance is another important benefit. Pensioners die every year due to not having adequate heating.
Personal care, where nurses and doctors can check up on people in their own home, may also face a cut.
This means that more and more people will have to go into care homes, which again, can damage that person's pride and independence.
Finally, the travel SmartPass is an extremely important benefit in that it enables older people to get out and about.
They can go to their clubs, visit their families and volunteer.
They can even travel up to Portrush for a day out, or to Dublin for free, and pensioners who live in Dublin can come here for free, spend money and see about the place.
Huge benefits come from the SmartPass for everyone.”
To find out what benefits you are entitled to, go to the Benefits Advisor Service at www.nidirect.gov.uk or contact your local jobs and benefits office
Disabled Keith Stevenson (39), Bangor
Keith is a civil servant. He says:
I was born with spina bifida which means that my legs don't work very well. I have to use crutches and callipers and I can't really walk more than 10 yards down the road. I get a DLA Care and Mobility allowance, which means that I have someone who looks after me, cooks my meals and that sort of thing. My mum does it for me because I still live with my parents. It’s not very much — around £75 a month — because I’m on the lowest rate. I was assessed that way because I can do things like stand up and walk a short distance.
The most important payment I get is my mobility. You're assessed and the payment you get is according to how mobile you are. I get a higher rate because I can't walk far — it’s around £50 a week or £200 a month. When I was younger, my mum drove me around, but when I turned 18 I put the allowance into a car.
Having a car gives me independence. I'm able to get to work, go and see friends and all sorts of things I wouldn't be able to do otherwise, because it's so hard for me to get around. I have never wanted to sit in the house all day. I wanted to have a car and a job and a life.
Getting around can still be hard for me. The stairs at the front of our house are really narrow, so I might get them fixed at some point.
I had a walk-in shower installed in the house and paid for it myself. I applied for a grant for it, but because of all the assessments and paperwork, it would have taken between 18 months and two years for it to come through.
It was easier to organise it myself — it took about seven days.
I live at home, but I have thought about moving out — finding somewhere suitable for me to live is part of the problem.
Buying a house at the moment is hard to do for anyone.”
Unemployed Charles Canning (27), Belfast
Charles is on Jobseeker's Allowance and receives £65 per week. He says:
At the moment I'm doing a bit of casual work while also signing on. I get £65 per week in Jobseeker's Allowance and I also do a bit of work for a production company at the Odyssey Arena.
My allowance gets reduced according to how many hours I work but it's hard for me to figure that out as some months I get 30 hours of work and others I get nothing. They take an estimate of the hours I've worked so it can be annoying when I haven't got any hours and my benefits are low, but I manage to make it work. I'm usually able to save a bit in case I need to travel somewhere.
I had a frustrating moment recently when I was offered a big shift on a Friday afternoon. I wasn't allowed to change the time I had to sign on, which was on the same Friday. I would have made less money working than I get in benefits so I simply couldn't go to work. I thought that just defeated the purpose of the whole thing.
I'm actually going to an interview at a department store today to try to find temp work but I know from experience that there'll be loads of people at it. It's always the same with these interviews and you're lucky if you hear back from them.
When they don't get back to you it's the worst thing that they could do. I’ve noticed that this trend is the same from the menial jobs I’ve applied for right up to the more high-end employers. I even waited five months for one employer to send out a letter saying I had failed their entry test by half a mark.
I don't like signing on at all, it's the worst thing in the world, but I need the money to get by. I suppose it's something. If I lost it it would have a negative impact on my life and the money gets me into town to look for more work.
One of the things I hate is doing all the paperwork. It's complicated but I suppose the benefit office doesn't want to be ripped off.
I know that some people go on the dole and get comfortable and before you know it they've been on it for years. There’s a temptation to not bother looking for work. I know a person that I went to school with that has a house from the Housing Executive and he and his girlfriend are both signing on with no intention of working. It suits them too much.”
Part-time work can be averaged out to prevent jobseekers going above their permitted 16 hours per week