Northern Ireland welfare claimants have best safety net in UK, says expert
Northern Ireland will have the best "belt and braces" system to help protect people from the impact of welfare reform, it has been claimed.
A report commissioned after Stormont's Fresh Start deal has set out a raft of proposals to cushion the effect of long-delayed benefits changes.
Its author, renowned benefits specialist professor Eileen Evason, said: "There is not another part of the UK with a belt and braces system in place to help people through this."
The report proposes that cash originally earmarked to help people due to lose in cuts to tax credits could instead assist those hit by the introduction of Universal Credit, after plans to slash tax credits were abandoned.
Universal Credit is replacing a number of benefits and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claimants are expected to move over to Personal Independent Payments (PIPs) over a three-year period.
A special helpline will be established for rejected claimants, as well as extra payments for some who lose out from the changes.
There will also be a series of supplementary payments to carers, people with ill health and families on low incomes.
Her report includes recommendations for Stormont to pilot strategies to tackle food poverty, potentially through a network of community food shops, social stores and supermarkets.
The Executive has agreed to allocate £585m over four years to top up UK welfare arrangements in Northern Ireland, with a review in 2018/19.
Some receiving enhanced disability payments could lose out from the shift from DLA to PIPs, and the report by Professor Evason recommended automatic supplementary payments to those eligible - covering the shortfall for up to one year.
They would kick in once losses are worth more than £10 a week and be expected to cover three quarters of the loss.
People with a conflict-related injury would receive extra points, making them more likely to qualify for the extra relief.
Many people are carers for those receiving DLA and there is concern those who do not qualify for PIPs will lose their allowance to pay for care. The report recommended that carers should receive an extra payment to cover their financial loss for a year.
Changes to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) also caused Prof Evason concern.
She said a supplementary payment should be made for a year to a claimant who loses out, subject to certain conditions.
Stormont will not introduce the bedroom tax, brought in for other parts of the UK.