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Losing 'bedroom tax' mitigations will impact thousands of families ...that's why we need Assembly back

Dark days: many families will suffer with the introduction of the bedroom tax
Dark days: many families will suffer with the introduction of the bedroom tax

By Andy Allen MBE

The Ulster Unionist Party has long believed that some form of welfare reform was necessary, because there are few things in life that cannot be improved.

There is no denying that the old system was unwieldy and far too complicated and it is perfectly reasonable to seek to bring about an improvement to not only ensure value for money for the public purse, but importantly that welfare payments are actually reaching the very people they are intended to help.

However, that is not what the current reforms have delivered and, instead, they have actually made the system more complicated and driven even more people towards real financial hardship.

As a society, I firmly believe that we should work to support individuals and families and help people to get out of poverty, not further compound the impact of poverty.

One area worth closer inspection is social sector size criteria (also known as the "bedroom tax").

This reduces an individual's applicable housing benefit award by either 14% of the "eligible rent" for one spare bedroom, or 25% of the eligible rent for two, or more, spare bedrooms.

I understand that some might say that if you have more rooms than you require, why stay in that house and incur the reduction?

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Unfortunately, for many tenants, they have little option, as Northern Ireland simply does not have the available housing stock to house the many thousands who require a home - let alone facilitate those who will be impacted by bedroom tax to downsize.

Nobody can deny that our present housing new-build targets are not ambitious enough, resulting in a year-on-year shortfall in the number of required social homes for those on the housing waiting list, or wishing to downsize.

This situation will inevitably be further compounded should we be unable to secure a workable solution to extend, or implement new, mitigations.

At present, many who are in receipt of mitigation payments for the bedroom tax aren't even aware they are being shielded, as the process is automatic, with no requirement to apply. As things stand, that arrangement is about to change, on March 31, 2020, which will see those in receipt of mitigations unduly impacted as a result.

Furthermore, the current social housing selection scheme does not adequately support downsizing, because the level of social housing points which are awarded to anyone seeking to downsize is not, in most cases, enough to be offered an alternative home.

There have been some suggestions that mitigation payments could be administered through the existing discretionary housing payment scheme. This is disingenuous at best, because this option is unworkable and would not guarantee those entitled to mitigation payments would receive them as they would not be automatic.

In fact, it is likely individuals would have to apply for the mitigation on a rolling basis and this would likely incur additional administration costs to the Department for Communities.

The only plausible solution is for the existing mitigation legislation to be amended, or new legislation brought forward, by a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, or at Westminster.

I firmly believe the welfare mitigations that were previously agreed and which are currently in force (but end on March 31, 2020) were essential in shielding those who would have been adversely impacted by the worst effects of welfare reform.

We are now, however, some six months away from those mitigations ending, with little prospect of a satisfactory solution.

While local politicians remain at loggerheads, our public services and vulnerable citizens continue to be adversely impacted. This is not acceptable.

I got involved in politics to make a difference. We need to get Stormont back and working again and those parties who are not prepared to do that need to step aside and let the rest of us get back to work.

Andy Allen MBE is Ulster Unionist MLA for East Belfast

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