Vulnerable families 'need protection' from spending cuts
Welfare reforms in Northern Ireland may heap further difficulties on vulnerable families already struggling to make ends meet, a Stormont committee chair has warned.
Social Development Committee chairman Alex Maskey stressed the need to protect those who could be hit by the proposed changes to the benefits system in the region.
The Sinn Fein MLA's comments came after the publication of two academic reports on the potential ramifications of Stormont's Welfare Reform Bill.
The devolved administration's legislation to replicate reforms in other parts of the UK would see benefits capped at £26,000 a year for working age households in a bid to prevent people receiving more from the state than they could earn in a job.
Patricia Lewsley-Mooney, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), has warned of "poverty horror" facing many young people after one of the research pieces claimed the families of 6,500 children would lose out on benefits as a result of the changes.
Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland welcomed the reports but questioned some of the findings, claiming they had caused unnecessary concern and that the introduction of the universal credit would actually lift thousands of children out of poverty.
Mr Maskey, who co-hosted the launch of the reports with the commissioner at a seminar in Belfast, said: "The two reports released today are an important contribution to the consideration on how welfare reform will impact on children.
"My committee knows the pressures that many vulnerable families are already under and that the Welfare Reform Bill has the potential to exacerbate the difficulties they currently face.
"We are committed therefore to working with stakeholders and the Department for Social Development to explore how to mitigate any adverse impact arising from this Bill and protect, in particular, the most vulnerable members of our society."
Ms Lewsley-Mooney said the Assembly must make children visible as it prepared to debate the proposals.
"There is a real need to improve the current benefits and social security system but I fear that many thousands of children and young people will suffer increased hardship and adverse life outcomes," she said.
"Despite the claim that the Executive has little choice but to implement the same changes as in other parts of the UK, this is not necessarily the case."
She said few families with children would be unaffected by the changes.
"Any reduction in household income has been proven to have an adverse effect on the emotional and physical health of children, as well as the longer-term outcomes for those children," said the commissioner.
"The Assembly must make sure, for example, that housing benefit is sufficient to ensure that families do not have to spend money on rent that is supposed to provide food, heat and other necessities for children.
"Children are particularly vulnerable to poverty and are unable themselves to influence their economic circumstances. The inequalities already experienced by many children in living in poverty could worsen considerably as a result of this welfare reform legislation, if action is not taken."
Mr McCausland said the report did not acknowledge that the Government estimates that 10,000 children would be lifted out of poverty with the introduction of the universal credit.
He added: "I do not accept that evidence exists to support the commissioner's claims that the Northern Ireland Executive is failing to protect children, or that it will fail to meet its targets to tackle child poverty.
"These statements will cause unnecessary concern and indeed, many of the recommendations within the report focus on reforms to the child benefit and tax credits system, for which the Northern Ireland Executive has no legislative responsibility.
"I feel strongly that the NICCY reports ignore the many positive benefits for children that universal credit will bring in helping parents move back into employment.
"There is clear evidence to show that children who grow up in homes that have inter-generational unemployment or benefit dependency have reduced lifetime opportunities in comparison to children where one or both parents are working.
"The introduction of universal credit will bring a stronger focus on helping people back into work and the NICCY reports fail to recognise the contribution this will make to the lives of children in Northern Ireland."
The first report, Welfare Reform - Assessing the impact on children, was written by Goretti Horgan and Marina Monteith from the University of Ulster and is an assessment of the impact of the proposed changes on children's rights and best interests.
The second report, Welfare Reform - The parity question, was penned by Barry Fitzpatrick and Professor Noreen Burrows and highlighted the pressure on the Executive to maintain parity in relation to welfare reform in Britain.
The report identified areas where flexibility can be used when adapting reforms within Northern Ireland.