Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

We must be given time to implement welfare reform

The Stormont Executive must take urgent action to mitigate the effects of the 'bedroom tax', says Cameron Watt

The year 2013 will be a boom one for bailiffs and slum landlords, according to Polly Toynbee. Her alarm is caused by the imminent welfare reforms, of which she is a vociferous opponent.

However, concerns about the hardship that could be caused by the changes extend well beyond liberal-Left commentators.

Department for Work and Pensions Minister Lord Freud was in Belfast this week to discuss our implementation of welfare reform.

At its centre is the Universal Credit (UC), which brings together Jobseekers Allowance, housing benefit and other payments into a single benefit, simplifying the system and creating stronger incentives to work.

Executive minister Nelson McCausland deserves real credit for the flexibilities secured in how UC will operate here.

Unlike in Britain, tenants will be able to continue to have housing support paid directly to their landlord and the UC payment may be split between two parties in the household and paid twice each month. This will greatly assist tenants' cash-flow and budgeting.

UC will be introduced in Britain in October 2013, but Mr McCausland has secured a postponement here until April 2014.

Most people welcome UC and its aims of simplifying the system and making work pay. However, its introduction is being preceded by various draconian cuts to benefits.

Of most concern is the 'bedroom tax', or under-occupation penalty. This is due to be introduced here and across the UK in April 2013, affecting 26,000 households in Housing Executive homes and 6,000 housing association households.

Working-age families deemed to be living in a house larger than they need will have housing benefit docked by 14% if they have one 'spare' bedroom, or by 25% if they have two or more.

For housing association tenants, this equates to a shortfall of around £9 per-week for one spare bedroom and £18 for two or more. Many families could be pushed in to hardship.

The measure is supposed to encourage the best use of limited social housing. However, there are few smaller homes for affected households to move to.

Our Welfare Reform Bill, which will legislate for these changes, is proceeding through Stormont.

Unfortunately, it appears that we will have to adopt the bedroom tax to avoid a costly break with parity. However, action is urgently needed to minimise its impact.

Firstly, more time is required. The Housing Executive and housing associations are publicising the likely changes to tenants and providing advice.

But the fact that these are still technically only proposals and the legislation has not been passed is causing real difficulties.

In Britain, the gap between the bedroom tax legislation being passed and the measure being introduced will be a year; here, it could be as little as one or two weeks. This is clearly insufficient.

Therefore, the bedroom tax's introduction should be delayed by six months in line with the six-month delay to UC. MLAs scrutinising the Bill must also attempt to exempt foster carers, disabled people and other vulnerable people from the tax.

Government funding for financial assistance to people affected has been increased to £7m, but this still leaves an annual shortfall in housing support of more than £10m.

The budget for these discretionary housing payments must be significantly increased and extended to minimise hardship. Debt advice and other welfare services will also need additional funding.

In tough times, the growing welfare budget has to be managed. But any changes with serious impacts on low-income families need proper planning and sufficient support.

Adequate time and assistance is vital to allow government, housing providers and civil society to work with social tenants in mitigating the impacts of the bedroom tax.

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