Welfare shake-up in crisis as universal credit delayed until autumn next year
The long-postponed reform of benefits in Northern Ireland has been delayed yet again, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The latest in a long line of hitches means the centrepiece of the reforms, universal credit, will not be brought in here until autumn of next year at the earliest.
That is eight months later than planned following the Fresh Start agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein that ended an almost three-year stand-off that at one point threatened the Assembly with collapse.
The delay, caused by IT issues, has raised fears that the system is not fit for purpose and that its introduction will be rushed.
The newly formed Department of Communities, which is in charge of the enormous shake-up, insisted the changes would be completed in 2018.
But Stormont's main opposition party, the Ulster Unionists, warned that the province may not be ready in time for the final switch-off from the present benefits arrangements.
The party's welfare spokesman, Andy Allen MLA, said he was shocked that the department would now have to attempt to implement the biggest overhaul of benefits in a generation in less than 12 months.
"Claimants of benefits which are being replaced by universal credit will not be able to rely on that assistance after summer 2018 because they won't officially exist any longer," the East Belfast MLA warned.
"It is therefore absolutely critical that Northern Ireland has completed its roll-out by 2018.
"However, this major delay to the commencement of our roll-out of the reforms now throws that into serious doubt.
"Given the experience in the rest of the United Kingdom, including the much-ridiculed pilot projects, we know problems will be experienced - and yet given our now incredibly tight deadline, we simply can't afford not to be ready."
Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long said the delay would do nothing for people already extremely anxious and uncertain over the welfare shake-up. The East Belfast MLA, who is her party's communities spokeswoman, added the issue would underpin concerns that the new system is not fit for purpose.
"Clearly, the roll-out of universal credit is causing anxiety to many people who are as yet unclear about how their current benefit entitlements may be affected by welfare reform," Mrs Long explained.
"With every fresh delay and with every change, additional concerns are being raised that the proposed system is not fit for purpose.
"Those in receipt of benefits need some certainty about the future, and further delays will do nothing to reassure them for the future."
A spokesperson for the Department for Communities said: "The introduction of universal credit has now moved to the Autumn because the development work on Northern Ireland changes to the universal credit ICT system has been delayed to accommodate changes to the United Kingdom-wide welfare system, announced in the summer Budget of 2015.
"The Fresh Start agreement brought to an end the financial penalties that were levied by Westminster for the failure to implement welfare reform within Northern Ireland.
"It is still planned to complete the roll-out of universal credit across Northern Ireland during 2018, and accordingly there will be a minimal impact on savings."