Belfast Telegraph

Thousands of Northern Ireland families facing income slump if welfare package not extended

Northern Ireland is facing another welfare reform crisis if Stormont support payments end amid the powersharing impasse, MPs have been warned.
Northern Ireland is facing another welfare reform crisis if Stormont support payments end amid the powersharing impasse, MPs have been warned.
Mark Edwards

By Mark Edwards

Tens of thousands of Northern Ireland households could see their incomes suddenly fall if welfare reform mitigations are not extended, two leading Westminster Committees have warned.

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.

Welfare mitigations, introduced to soften the impact of UK-wide welfare reforms like the 'bedroom tax' in Northern Ireland, were introduced in 2016 and are due to expire in March next year.

The committees warned that unless Mr Smith takes urgent action, tens of thousands of households in Northern Ireland would see their incomes suddenly fall, some by hundreds of pounds per month.

The committees said that Northern Ireland's special circumstances means the province would be disproportionately impacted by UK-wide welfare policies like the so-called bedroom tax- which reduces the housing benefit entitlement of working-age tenants if they live in housing that is deemed to be too large for their needs.

The report concluded that without the mitigation package in place, welfare claimants in Northern Ireland would be penalised for the lack of suitable social housing stock available.

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Julian Smith (Brian Lawless/PA)

Similar issues exist with the implementation of other Government policies in Northern Ireland, such as the benefit cap, due to, amongst other things, the societal impact of the Troubles.

The committees have argued that the special circumstances in Northern Ireland that justified the mitigation package in 2016 have not changed in the last four years and that there is a clear political consensus that the package should continue.

Due to a lack of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland, the mitigation package cannot be extended without action at Westminster.

A UK Government spokeswoman said: "The Secretary of State's priority remains getting Stormont up and running urgently.

"The Department for Communities in Northern Ireland is responsible for the delivery of the various mitigation schemes relating to welfare reform in Northern Ireland.

"Its officials are ensuring that appropriate advice in relation to welfare mitigation is available for an incoming Minister." 

Nigel Mills MP, a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, who has been chairing the joint inquiry, said: “Welfare claimants in Northern Ireland cannot be left to shoulder the costs of inadequate social housing stock and the devastating impact left behind by the Troubles.

"Thousands of claimants are relying upon the social security mitigation package - it cannot be allowed to suddenly stop because the corridors and benches of Stormont lie empty."

Mr Mills called on the Secretary of State to recognise the "gravity of the situation" in Northern Ireland and introduce legislation to Westminster to extend the package beyond next year.

If this does not happen, thousands of households in Northern Ireland will see their monthly income fall sharply with some losing hundreds of pounds per month. Nigel Mills MP

"There is a clear consensus among the main political parties in Northern Ireland that the package can continue, and the Government have taken important Northern Ireland legislation through Westminster in the past two years.

"They should take the same approach to this vital issue of social security.”

Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey said: “As Tory attacks on the welfare system and those most in need continue, it is vital that funding to offset the Tory cuts continues.

“Funding for the mitigation package which was secured as part of the Fresh Start Agreement has helped alleviate the hardship caused by Tory cuts for many.

“The funding for that mitigation package is due to come to an end in March 2020 and Sinn Féin has been clear that mitigation measures must continue past that deadline.”

Ulster Unionist welfare spokesman Robbie Butler MLA welcomed the conclusion of the report.

 “The fact that the current legislation expires in March 2020 and that the Department for Communities is still adamant that the decision on any new measures from April next year can only be a matter for incoming Ministers means it is no longer an option for the Northern Ireland Office to simply look the other way," he said.

“Whilst I of course would much prefer these issues and decisions being dealt with locally, it appears that more than two and a half years after collapsing the Assembly the DUP and Sinn Fein are still placing their political ideologies and priorities ahead of actually delivering for families, the vulnerable and working poor in society.”

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