Politicians call for reform of controversial Universal Credit as tens of thousands affected
Tens of thousands of Universal Credit (UC) recipients had their benefits slashed by almost £2m in the space of just one month earlier this year, new figures show.
Each claimant lost around £60, officials said.
UC is a welfare benefit similar to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and is calculated on a monthly basis. It is a payment for those aged 18 and over, but under state pension age, who are on a low income or out of work.
The payment includes support for the cost of housing, children and childcare, and financial support for people with disabilities, carers and people too ill to work.
At the end of each household's individual assessment period a statement of award is generated.
There were 121,083 such statements generated during January this year and 33,684 of these had deductions applied - more than a quarter of all claims.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, responding to an Assembly question (AQ), said the average reduction to claims was £56.72. This means a total of around £1.9m was cut from claims in January.
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll called for action on reforming the benefits system.
"The fact that over a quarter of Universal Credit claimants faced reductions from their awards during one month, in the middle of a pandemic, clearly shows the system is not fit for purpose and not doing what we were told it would do," he said.
"Universal Credit was sold as a better system to get benefits to people but this figure clearly shows that claimants are punished by this cruel system.
"At a time when financial pressure is increasing on people, we need to see an end to the sanctions-addicted system and instead work out ways to permanently uplift benefits and urgently move away from a meagre benefit system to something much fairer and reflective of the needs of people who need access to benefits."
SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan added: "These figures are worrying and certainly require further scrutiny.
"We need a further breakdown of why these deductions are being made but, on the face of it, this confirms that poverty creates debt and debt compounds poverty."
A Department for Communities spokesperson said: "The deductions referred to in the answer to this AQ include deductions for benefit debt or overpayments, including where there have been previous overpayments of tax credits or housing benefit; fraud repayments, repayable loans and third party deductions.
"The total amount of these deductions applied in January 2020 was £1.91m. The total amount of Universal Credit paid out in NI in January 2020 was £67.8m. These deductions therefore represent 2.8% of that total amount."
Recently it emerged the number of people with jobs who also needed to claim UC doubled to almost 40,000 in the first five months of the first Covid lockdown here.
Claims data analysis revealed almost one in three claimants were in receipt of UC because they were not earning enough from their jobs.
According to experts, since the beginning of the pandemic many UC claims were made by furloughed workers, those in low-paid jobs, and those on zero-hours contracts drawing the benefit to top up their incomes.