The impact of an overhaul of the benefits system will be much worse in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK, it has been claimed.
Politicians at Stormont have said Northern Ireland is not ready for sweeping changes to the way benefits are paid – in particular the controversial bedroom tax that came into force in England yesterday.
Bedroom tax, which comes under the changes to housing benefit, will result in recipients getting less financial assistance if they live in a Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) or housing association property that is deemed to have one or more spare bedrooms.
However, UUP MLA Michael Copeland (below) – a member of the Stormont social development committee – warned the NIHE does not have enough suitable properties to ensure tenants are not adversely impacted if the bedroom tax is introduced here.
"The bedroom tax is a controversial issue but it is even more controversial in Northern Ireland as we simply don't have the housing stock to facilitate those who would wish to move to a smaller property," he said.
"The long-term effects of proposed welfare reform on the economy, particularly on low-paid working families with children, will be disproportionate to the rest of the UK."
The NIHE has said a substantial number of its tenants will be affected by the under-occupancy proposals. In a briefing paper provided to the social development committee, it warned that more than 26,000 tenants, representing 60% of all working age tenants, will be affected.
Of these, over 7,318 live in a property with two or more bedrooms meaning they would lose 25% of their housing benefit entitlement.
The introduction of bedroom tax is one of a raft of proposals currently under consideration by Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland.
The subject is due to be debated again by the Assembly in a matter of weeks where it is expected there will be fierce arguments against welfare reform as the proposals currently stand.
The issue came under the spotlight again as a number of reforms were introduced in Britain yesterday, including the introduction of bedroom tax and changes to the legal aid system. Over the coming weeks, more changes are planned – disability living allowance is to be scrapped next Monday, a benefit cap will be introduced the following week and universal credit will begin at the end of the month.
No decisions have been made for the future of reform here but it is likely that if Northern Ireland does not follow suit, the Assembly will have to find millions of pounds from the Northern Ireland budget to cover the cost.
Sinn Fein MLA Micky Brady, the deputy chair of the committee, said: "We have larger families, higher rates of disadvantaged people, higher rates of unemployment; the circumstances here are much different than elsewhere."