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Eileen Evason: To protect the most vulnerable, we need Stormont Executive in action again

It's time to start thinking about welfare reform and the challenges ahead

By Professor Eileen Evason

I was invited to lead a Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group which was established in November 2015 on foot of the 'Fresh Start' agreement.

The aim of the Working Group was to bring forward recommendations aimed at mitigating the impact of welfare reform in Northern Ireland within the available financial envelope. It was clear to me that the choice was between welfare reform with provisions recognising the volume of need and special circumstances in Northern Ireland, and welfare reform of the utterly harsh and uncaring nature visited on claimants in GB in the legislation of 2011.

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The consequences of this legislation for those in poverty in GB have been vividly demonstrated recently in research and TV documentaries on the effects of the benefit cap. I agreed to lead the Working Party on mitigation, without hesitation, as it gave us the possibility of protecting vulnerable people in Northern Ireland from the worst excesses of what was happening elsewhere.

This piece of work was challenging for a number of reasons. In effect, we had to do the work in six weeks which left little time for consultation and discussion, though there had been ongoing debate for some time. The fine from Westminster for not implementing welfare reform continued remorselessly.

There had been various changes - most obviously to tax credits and housing benefit before and around the 2011 legislation and more would follow. We could not take account of - or predict - the totality of all of these cuts and adjustments.

The legislation for Northern Ireland was going to be introduced in Westminster and a strategy had to be developed which was focused, deliverable and within the financial arrangements set out in the Agreement.

The mitigation strategy that we recommended had three strands.

The first of these related to allaying the considerable anxiety that existed with regard to the welfare reform legislation and providing supplementary payments, for varying periods, over the four years for carers, those with ill health and disability and families - importantly including mitigation of the social sector size criteria (known as the "bedroom tax"), the benefit cap and help for families in working poverty.

Implementation of this strand commenced in the middle of last year in a process whereby cuts in benefits have been made but the provision of supplementary payments has meant that for many there have been no adverse consequences. It's a bit confusing but it seems to work.

The second strand related to supporting and protecting claimants, especially the most vulnerable, with independent advice at key points in all of the welfare changes.

Uniquely, Northern Ireland now has a structure dedicated specifically to assisting and representing those affected by welfare reform - the Welfare Reform Support Project.

Fully trained staff are available to help anyone in difficulty. The helpline number is 0808 802 0020. The service is backed up by 35 face-to-face advisers across Northern Ireland and there is also specialist help and support for those with complex physical or mental health problems.

I urge those in difficulty, or simply not sure about what is happening, to ring the helpline without delay and congratulate the independent advice sector for coming together to deliver this essential service.

The third strand of the report aimed to explore new ways to alleviate hardship and included measures including tackling food poverty, increasing awareness of the help available and assistance with the financial adjustment needed to cope with the welfare changes. The report was presented to First Minister Foster and Deputy First Minister McGuinness in January 2016.

I am very aware of all of the hard work by the department, the advice sector and the voluntary and community sectors to put all of this in place.

What we have, limited as it is, is far in advance of what has been secured by other devolved governments and demonstrates what can be achieved through devolution when people work together.

I am also very aware of the high level of social need that continues to scar so many households and communities and is most evident in the growing reliance on food banks.

Our programme for mitigation is limited to four years and there will be a review of what has been achieved in 2018-19.

We need to start thinking now about which parts of the package should be retained and whether we can help those affected by cuts made since our report: most obviously the implementation of the so-called 2 child policy, cuts to Employment & Support Allowance and the severe limitation in support for widowed parents which is now being put in place.

I have no doubt those working with the most vulnerable in our society are anxious to move forward but here, as is the case on so many issues, it is difficult to see how progress can be made without resolution of the current political impasse.

Prof Eileen Evason headed the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group set up by Stormont. Its January 2016 report outlined a series of proposals for protecting benefit claimants and was accepted in full by the NI Executive

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