Belfast Telegraph

Welfare claimants, schools and hospitals to pay price of Northern Ireland's political meltdown

By Suzanne Breen

Up to £91m pounds set aside to mitigate the impact of the "bedroom tax" on Northern Ireland is at risk following the collapse of the Executive, a DUP Minister warned last night.

Communities Minister Paul Givan said there was a very real threat to the money - which was to help around 34,000 homes over the next four years - if devolution was suspended in Northern Ireland for a lengthy period.

Mr Givan said that he could not release the £24m pledged to help claimants this year because legally he needed the agreement of the Executive.

His warning came as concerns grew that measures to deal with lengthy hospital waiting lists, health reform, school budgets, assistance to victims of historical sex abuse, and a whole host of other urgent matters were now in jeopardy.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said he would be demanding that the Government takes action to address these issues when he meets Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire today.

"He cannot wash his hands of this mess," Mr Farry said. "He must take action to help the most vulnerable people in society who are in line to suffer because of the mess the DUP and Sinn Fein have made in government.

"Normally, there is an orderly wind down of Assembly and Executive business. This week, the nuclear button was pressed at Stormont.

"As well as the bedroom tax, we have issues such as tackling hospital waiting lists and implementing the Bengoa health service reforms. The Department of Education vetoed every school budget in Northern Ireland, and we now face the challenge of getting out of that impasse without political institutions."

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Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, Mr Givan said his hands were tied regarding releasing the funds to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax.

Up to 34,000 of the least well-off households here are set to lose an average of £20 a week if assistance isn't made available.

"Legally, the mitigation measures have to go to the Executive, then the relevant committee, and finally the Assembly for a debate and vote," said Mr Givan.

"That would have been done over the next four weeks and measures put in place before the bedroom tax was introduced on 20 February.

"Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein wanted the bedroom tax but, by Sinn Fein's actions, it's now on the cards.

"Martin McGuinness's resignation as Deputy First Minister means there can be no Executive meetings and I don't have the legal power to release this money myself."

Mr Givan said that he had asked his officials to examine emergency procedures to look for a way out of the situation.

"In a worst case scenario where direct rule is introduced and the Stormont institutions are put in cold storage for a considerable period, £91m to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax over four years could be at risk," he added.

A Department for Communities spokesperson said: "The Department has also prepared the necessary legislation, for Executive approval, to implement the mitigation scheme.

"Assembly approval is required in order to give the Department the necessary powers to make payments to support the approximate 33,720 Housing Benefit claimants who will be impacted by the introduction of the Social Sector Size Criteria.

"Without Executive and Assembly approval the Department does not have the legal basis to introduce the mitigation payments as planned. The Minister has tasked officials to look at what emergency procedures may be available." Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said his party wasn't responsible for the situation and that the blame lay firmly at the door of Arlene Foster for failing to step aside as First Minister while an investigation was held into 'cash for ash'.

"When you get a scandal to the tune of half a billion pounds sterling it has to be dealt with, there has to be transparency, that has to be protected," he said.

"The person who set her face against that was the First Minister. She is to blame for the collapse of the institutions and I stress again that Martin McGuinness's record is clear for all to see.

"It is obvious to anybody fair-minded that this was a step taken by him because he felt that he had no other option." Steps to protect those on benefits were championed by Sinn Fein and negotiated as part of the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement. Under the 'bedroom tax', claimants are to receive less money if they live in a property deemed to have a spare bedroom. Local advice charity, Housing Rights, said it was deeply worried about the situation following the collapse of the Executive.

Its manager, Kate McCauley, said: "We are concerned that if the current political uncertainty continues it could have unintended consequences for people living in social housing who stand to be impacted by the bedroom tax. "If the regulations to make arrangements for supplementary payments are not brought forward, an alternative solution must be found."

Ms McCauley added: "Housing Rights would encourage urgent consideration of all available options to safeguard tenants' homes. This should involve stakeholders including those who represent tenants and landlords. Regardless of the mechanism used, it is vital that those affected have the intended financial protection."

SDLP communities spokesperson Nichola Mallon said: "It is unacceptable that the most vulnerable in our society are left exposed because of a fall-out between the DUP and Sinn Fein who had promised to protect them.

"Paul Givan must not throw in the towel. Housing Rights have suggested ways to implement the mitigation payments and the minister must ensure that happens."

The Executive's collapse will also hit small businesses to the tune of around £700 a year on average.

The Small Business Rate Relief (SBRR) scheme was introduced in 2010 to support small businesses during the recession. Since then 110,000 SBRR awards have been made to businesses at a total cost of £61.5m.

Annually, some 26,000 properties receive relief under the scheme at a cost of around £18m. That scheme was due to end at the end of the financial year - but now it may not be possible for its replacement may to be set up.

The survivors of historical sex abuse in children's homes said that they feared that proposals to help them, including compensation payments, were now in jeopardy.

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International said: "Among the losers here of the political uncertainty will definitely be the abuse survivors."

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