Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland welfare reform mitigation 'can't be extended without Stormont'


Welfare claimants are facing a cliff edge when measures to ease the impact of welfare reform are scheduled to come to an end in March 2020.
Welfare claimants are facing a cliff edge when measures to ease the impact of welfare reform are scheduled to come to an end in March 2020.

The Department for Communities has said mitigations to ease the impact of welfare reform cannot be extended without an Assembly.

Welfare claimants are facing a cliff edge when measures to ease the impact of welfare reform, including a subsidy to the bedroom tax, are scheduled to come to an end in March 2020.

The mitigation measures were passed shortly before the Stormont assembly's collapse in order to allow claimants to have their benefits topped up from a separate fund.

Up to 34,000 households in Northern Ireland could be affected by the addition of the bedroom tax if they're deemed to have an extra room in their house.

A spokesperson for the Department for Communities said: "In its review of the mitigations, the department highlighted that the legislation for the various mitigation schemes clearly provides that they will end on 31 March 2020.

"In the continued absence of a functioning Assembly the Department will not be able to make amendments to the existing mitigations legislation.

"This position was endorsed in the Report by the Joint Inquiry into Welfare Policy in NI, where it was accepted that while use of Discretionary Housing Payments would be the only plausible and legal means to continue the 2 main mitigation payments without legislation from Westminster, there was a serious risk that some claimants would not receive a mitigation payment.

"Consequently, the Joint Inquiry Report recommended that the UK Government should take forward the necessary legislation," they said.

The spokesperson said this position has been discussed with representatives of the major political parties.

Speaking to the BBC's Nolan programme on Monday, Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey said "for people who are on a very low income, any money out of their benefits is too much".

"The programme we [created] a number of years ago was that the department had to do a full review of the mitigations programme after three years and the department has done that."

Mr Maskey said there is still money in the existing fund to continue the mitigations past March 2020 and that the parties agreed in December last year that they would try and reach a consensus to continue the mitigations.

Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen said he's met with senior officials in the Department for Communities and that his understanding is a minister is needed to make the decisions about welfare mitigations.

"The senior officials running the department at the moment in the absence of ministers, their advice to us is that they are unable to take forward the mitigation measures post March 2020. We're taking our advice from them, the most senior people running the department," he said.

"The reality of it is we want Stormont back to be able to protect those individuals."

Kevin Higgins from Advice NI said the full brunt of the bedroom tax will affect people to the tune of £50 a month on average.

The Northern Ireland Affairs and Work and Pensions Committees have published a joint report calling on Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith to commit to legislation which will extend the social security mitigation package here.

"The joint committee is saying that in the absence of an assembly, our government and secretary of state must act quickly to legislate and avoid the looming cliff edge, and extend the mitigations," said Mr Higgins.

"People will slide into housing arrears, inevitably you'll get towards repossessions, evictions and homelessness as a result of the mitigations ending."

"There's very little that can be done by those receiving the benefits to prepare.

"Housing executive research shows that many don't know they're getting the mitigation to begin with, it happens behind the scenes. Even if you did know, because of the cuts that have been made to the social security system, there's very little you can do to make plans for such substantial cuts."

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