The benefits system is at breaking point after it was revealed the department responsible was facing a “doomsday scenario” around funding.
At a meeting of Stormont’s Communities Committee yesterday it was learned that plans to hire 900 staff had been paused despite an increase of more than 126% in universal credit claimants over the past 10 months.
The number of claimants is expected to rise further when the UK Government’s furlough scheme ends.
Cherrie Arnold, director of finance at the Department for Communities, which oversees the benefits system, told MLAs that the wait for the majority of claimants for their first payment could rise from five to six or seven weeks, and there could be more staff absences and sickness due to the high workload.
“We are not going to be able to help people move into work and reduce their benefits and it could lead to potential financial penalties from the Treasury,” she said.
“We will be the only region in the islands that is unable to support people in the middle of the biggest economic crisis we are currently facing.”
Mrs Arnold said that in an ideal scenario 1,200 staff would be needed to deal with universal credit workloads, and the system was only coping at the minute with easements from the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions and a lack of face-to-face working because of the pandemic.
She said the budget announced by Finance Minister Conor Murphy earlier this month for the 2021/22 financial year was “very challenging” for the department.
Mrs Arnold said the proposed budget was £824m of resource funding, only £1m more than 2020/21.
Of the department’s £318m bid for resource funding, £42.8m was granted. In terms of capital funding, the department bid for £329m and was allocated £224m.
She said a number of bids for additional money, including for Covid funding, homelessness, the advice sector, language strategy, disability, gender equality, anti-poverty strategies, labour market interventions and staff pay, had not been approved.
This would have a significant impact on the department’s plans, she added.
In terms of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, only funding to support existing welfare mitigations had been approved.
Mrs Arnold said Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey was continuing to lobby party colleague Mr Murphy for funding.
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong said it was a “horrendous budget” and added she hoped the situation wasn’t being exaggerated to generate extra funding.
SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan echoed Mrs Armstrong, saying it was not uncommon for departments to put a “poor mouth” on things.
The Foyle MLA described the budget as a “complete bombshell” and a “doomsday scenario”.
Sinn Fein MLA Sinead Ennis said the department was in a “very dire situation”.
She said the Executive had “yet again been dealt a bad hand by the British Government” and that it was “inconceivable” no money had been allocated for labour market interventions.
The South Down MLA proposed writing to the Department of Finance to support the minister’s call for extra funding, which was accepted.