Library cuts set to hit 'most vulnerable' in Northern Ireland
Some of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland are set to be hit by cuts to library services which they are relying on to claim the Universal Credit benefit.
That’s according to some members of the Libraries NI Board, the umbrella group for libraries in Northern Ireland.
Universal Credit is being introduced in Northern Ireland to replace six means-tested benefits including Jobseeker's Allowance and Housing Benefit.
A recent board meeting heard that an increasing number of people who are trying to get Universal Credit, are turning to libraries because they don’t have internet access at home. It also emerged that extra staff have been redeployed to libraries to ease pressure on services.
The board heard those staff will only be deployed for a short period of time.
Board member and Sinn Fein councillor for Mid Ulster District council Sean McGuigan said that for many in rural areas, “the only place people can get online is at a library, and staff are under increasing pressure to help those who lack basic IT skills".
“It can take an hour to help someone claiming Universal Credit," councillor McGuigan added.
Library staff aren’t permitted to fill in any part of the forms, they are only allowed to assist claimants who lack the computer skills to do so.
Fellow Board member SDLP Alderman Thomas Burns, of Antrim and Newtownabbey Council, said libraries only have a limited number of computers and “people who are desperate to claim their benefits are having to wait until one is free, which only adds to their stress. The system is in danger of being overwhelmed.”
SDLP councillor for Belfast City Council and Board member Donal Lyons said Libraries NI was doing its best to teach people without any IT skills how to get online.
“Libraries are uniquely placed to provide this kind of help but with a further cut of 4% to Libraries NI’s budget these types of programmes are coming under further strain," he said.
"This is just the latest round of cuts and over the previous four years Libraries NI's baseline budget has decreased by nearly £5.5M”
The Department for Communities who administer Universal Credit said in a statement: “Where a claimant cannot make and maintain their Universal Credit claim online, they may make a claim by telephone.
"To date, over 5,500 claims have been received and seven of these have been made by telephone. Exceptional circumstances may include claimants without an Appointee who: can’t speak, read or write in English; are medically blind; are restricted from using the internet; or have mental health issues that restrict them leaving their home.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital