Image: Food banks in the UK have reported record demand amid universal credit chaos
By Brian Pelan, VIEW editor
Universal Credit (UC), which has caused social havoc in people’s lives in other parts of the UK, is on its way to Northern Ireland.
A manager of an advice centre in east Belfast has warned that the introduction of UC to Northern Ireland could lead to an increase in “poverty, rent arrears and homelessness.”.
The roll-out of the new welfare system will start in Limavady in September and will come to Belfast in May 2018.
MPs recently launched an official inquiry into Universal Credit amid growing concerns that design flaws in the new benefits system are leaving thousands of low-income claimants facing eviction and reliant on food banks.
The Commons Work and Pensions Committee said it was compelled to launch a full investigation after mounting evidence that built-in payment delays and administrative blockages were creating severe problems for claimants and landlords.
Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy at Advice NI, recently said in a statement: “If the Assembly and an Executive is not in place it is worth considering a pause in the roll out of Universal Credit in light of the impact we have seen in the rest of the UK, and also as there is a precedent for doing so. The UK Government has halted the planned rollout of Universal Credit into North Kensington following the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the Scottish Executive has requested a pause in the roll out of Universal Credit until problems with its implementation are fully resolved.”
The aim of Universal Credit is to incorporate six means tested benefits into one, “digital-by-default” benefit.
According to the latest figures from the Department of Communities in February 2017, around 251,000 people in Northern Ireland were claiming one of the key benefits available.
It has been stated by a number of Conservative Party ministers that one of the key aims of universal credit is to simplify the benefits system but also to reduce the overall cost of the welfare benefits system.
We are also repeatedly told that spending on “welfare” for disabled people is out of control, yet the Department for Work and Pensions has gone nearly £200m over budget, paying two private firms to run the personal independence payments (PIP) assessment system.
The Conservatives have now spent £700m in taxpayers’ money on these contracts alone, despite the fact the process is so flawed that one charity reported that four out of five rejections that they appealed against were overturned.
Journalist Frances Ryan in a recent newspaper article (http://bit.ly/2sQ8NZz) said: “The government’s flagship benefit reform, universal credit (UC): is five years behind schedule, with delays announced seven times and a price tag rising to a staggering £16bn. And yet, with all that public money, it’s still plagued by administrative chaos and design flaws – to the extent that it’s not only failing in its purpose of improving the benefits system but is actively creating more social and economic problems.
“The Trussell Trust found that universal credit’s much-criticised six-week waiting period has led to mass emergency food parcels. In areas where the full universal credit rollout has taken place, food bank referral rates are now more than double the national average. This is on top of the debt, rent arrears and evictions it is also causing.
There are many bodies in Northern Ireland who have voiced their concerns over the planned introduction of universal credit, including Advice NI (http://bit.ly/2t5VhDj) and PPR (http://bit.ly/2sFBslk), but it is obvious that a more co-ordinated approach of opposition is needed, including the involvement of the community and voluntary sector and the trade union movement, if this ‘welfare tsunami’ is to be halted.