People risk being forced into destitution by proposed welfare changes in Northern Ireland, the Human Rights Commission has said.
Sanctions such as reducing benefits for some who fail to meet new criteria may be discriminatory and women with childcare responsibilities or the disabled are particularly vulnerable, chief commissioner Professor Michael O'Flaherty added.
Assembly members are scrutinising welfare legislation, with Sinn Fein expressing serious misgivings about the impact of planned changes in back-to-work measures and other clauses. The DUP has warned of the potential cost of delay on the welfare budget provided by Westminster.
Professor O'Flaherty said: "The commission has advised the committee that the risk of people being forced into destitution is real. We have called upon the Assembly to ensure that the right to an adequate standard of living is maintained. No-one as a consequence of these changes should find themselves without food, heat or shelter."
The commission has given evidence to the Social Development Committee on the Welfare Reform Bill.
Professor O'Flaherty added: "The Human Rights Commission recognises the aim of the Bill is to assist people into work. However we are concerned that the full impact on human rights remains unknown as the Bill is wide-ranging and leaves so much to secondary legislation."
The legislation proposes that those in receipt of benefits will be subject to various work-related requirements. Failure to comply may result in a sanction including partial withdrawal of financial assistance.
The commission head added: "The commission is concerned that sanctions may be discriminatory. Women with childcare responsibilities and disabled people are particularly vulnerable as a consequence of the proposed changes."
The planned changes include sanctions for those turning down jobs and a cap on benefits paid to a single family. The coalition Government has argued that the changes will "make work pay". It has insisted the changes will ensure people who are working are better off than the unemployed.
If the new legislation is passed by MLAs at Stormont, the Welfare Reform Bill would bring the changes brought about at Westminster into effect in Northern Ireland. The second stage passed through Stormont on October 10, with a majority of 60 votes to 42 in favour.