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Bedroom tax welfare mitigation to be extended

Some 38,000 people will be affected by the measures which have been costed at £23 million per annum.

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Deirdre Hargey. Minister for Communities (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Deirdre Hargey. Minister for Communities (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Deirdre Hargey. Minister for Communities (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Plans have been announced to extend welfare mitigations to the bedroom tax.

Benefits claimants in Northern Ireland were described as facing a “cliff edge” as the previous set of mitigations, including a subsidy to the bedroom tax, to ease the impact of welfare reform were due to run out in March.

An estimated 38,000 households are in receipt of supplementary payments which protect them from the bedroom tax.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said she will be introducing new legislation to extend mitigations to the bedroom tax in the coming weeks and that the proposal would cost £23 million per annum.

She said she will next be looking at regulations around the benefit cap.

“We have a responsibility to protect the poorest and most vulnerable in society,” she said.

“I am pleased to announce that today the Executive agreed to my recommendation, in line with New Decade, New Approach, for the urgent extension of the bedroom tax mitigation beyond March 2020,” she said.

“In the coming weeks I will introduce new legislation to extend this essential mitigation, which will continue to safeguard more than 38,000 of the most vulnerable households in our society from harsh Tory welfare cuts.”

The Department for Communities previously said the mitigation scheme could not be extended without an Assembly.

The measures, to allow claimants to have their benefits topped up from a separate fund, had been passed shortly before the collapse of Stormont in January 2017.

The extension of welfare mitigations had been agreed in the New Decade, New Approach deal.

Housing Rights policy & practice manager Kate McCauley described the announcement as “very welcome”.

“It will be reassuring to the 38,000 tenants impacted by the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland who were set to lose an average of £50 a month come March 2020,” she said.

“Recent research has shown that, for tenants who have lost their bedroom tax mitigation payments, average arrears per household almost quadrupled in the five months that followed.

“It is therefore our hope that today’s announcement will remove the risk of arrears and housing stress faced by households as a result of bedroom tax.”

Ursula O’Hare of the Cliff Edge Coalition – a group of more than 100 organisations across Northern Ireland campaigning to extend and strengthen the welfare mitigations – welcomed the announcement.

“Minister Hargey has given a strong assurance that she and her officials are focused on delivering an extended welfare mitigations package before the current package is due to end, and that new measures will be introduced to alleviate additional pressures as part of the review,” she said.

“Without extending the bedroom tax mitigation some 38,000 affected households would lose an average of £50 per month.

“We look forward to working with the minister to develop and introduce strengthened measures to take account of new challenges such as Universal Credit, including the two-child limit, as well as cuts to housing benefits in the private rented sector.”

Political parties also welcomed the announcement but pressed the minister on mitigation on other measures.

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong said “more clarity is needed on the other supplementary payments that are currently being made”.

“It is unfortunate that the communities minister did not make this announcement in the Assembly Chamber, where members would have had the opportunity to get more detail so people in receipt of the other supplementary payments could have received some assurances,” she said.

“This is an important issue, which is regularly raised with elected representatives, so full scrutiny is essential.”

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan said a long-term approach is required.

“Whilst I welcome the extension of mitigations, it is clear the current package is neither sustainable nor sufficient. Much more work must be done to repair and mitigate the existing damage,” he said.

“I will be liaising with the Communities Minister to see what additional mitigations can be secured for people across the North already suffering as a result of this callous bedroom tax.”

Green Party NI leader Clare Bailey welcomed the move.

“I want to see the bedroom tax scrapped altogether but at this time it’s important to recognise the efforts of the sector in lobbying for the extension of these mitigations,” she said.

“There are a number of other welfare mitigations due to come to an end at the end of March – I look forward to further action from the minister to address this.”

PA