Cuts to benefits could result in more young people resorting to emigration, crime and even suicide, Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan has warned.
The warning was issued as it emerged more than 1,500 people aged 25 or under are receiving housing benefit in Londonderry.
Under new reforms from Westminster many now face having their benefits slashed, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying housing allowance could be scrapped altogether for young people after 2015.
In the meantime the Government has announced proposals which will see housing support capped and social housing tenants with spare rooms having their allowance slashed by up to a quarter.
Mr Durkan (right) has now urged Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland and other local politicians to block the proposals. He said vulnerable young people must be protected from the “worst effects of welfare reform”.
Speaking after it was confirmed in answer to his Assembly question that there are currently 1,538 people under the age of 25 in receipt of housing benefit in Derry, Mr Durkan said: “The Welfare Reform Bill is going to hit everyone hard, particularly young people in our city, and given the British Prime Minister’s future proposals to completely remove housing benefit from those under 25 after the next election, the consequences could be catastrophic.
“The vast majority of young people do not want to be on benefits, nor do they see it as a favourable lifestyle choice, but have been left with no other option.
“The fact is that there is an overwhelming sense of hopelessness among our youth with scarce employment opportunities and a lack of adequate training schemes to give many of them the skills which they require to compete in the job market.”
Mr Durkan said that targeting young people on housing benefit will not go far in filling the black hole in Government finances, nor will it create a better society.
“It will instead put an even greater strain on our homeless shelters and will deepen the sense of alienation felt by so many young people.
“We cannot afford to lose any more of our young people to emigration, prison or suicide,” he added. “It is essential that the Social Development Minister and political parties do not sit idly by and allow the harmful changes to our benefits system.”
In May this year a spokeswoman for Mr McCausland’s department told the Belfast Telegraph he was commissioning reports into the likely impact of the Government proposals.
She said the minister planned to intervene to help those most seriously impacted by the changes.
Another department spokeswoman confirmed yesterday that the issues raised were being examined.
She said: “An Executive sub-committee has been formed to consider the local impact of the proposed bill, and to see how any negative impact on vulnerable groups — such as those with disabilities, the young and the elderly — can be minimised.”