Bob Stronge, chief executive of Advice NI, warns that the clock is ticking on the expiry of the welfare mitigations package in 2020 and the savage cuts this will unleash on thousands of unsuspecting low income households.
It is easy to forget that not so long ago the issue of welfare reform and concerns about how it would impact on the most vulnerable people almost brought the Northern Ireland Assembly to the brink.
In 2015 a consensus was reached that whilst welfare reform would be implemented, the most savage cuts to household incomes would be mitigated by implementing recommendations of the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group chaired by Professor Eileen Evason.
Using the latest published figures we can now see more clearly the effectiveness of the ‘Evason’ mitigations and the extent of the help provided to vulnerable, low income households, including:
• Bedroom Tax (low income social tenants) from February 2017-March 2017: A total of 34,010 claimants were impacted by the change in 2016/17, receiving a total of £2,380,850, which equates to an average of £70 per claimant.
• Benefit Cap (lone parents or couples with children) from May 2016-March 2017): A total of 2,020 claimants received Welfare Supplementary Payments because they were impacted by the Benefit Cap. The total amount paid to these claimants was £1,754,710. This equates to an average of £870 per claimant.
• Discretionary Support Scheme (replaced community care grants & crisis loans) from November 2016-March 2017: A total of 19,900 claimants received a total of £4,144,870 which equates to an average award of £210.
• Additional Independent Advice Services (from November 2016-March 2017): A total of 15,706 welfare reform enquiries on issues including Personal Independence Payments, Employment & Support Allowance and Welfare Supplementary Payments.
Undoubtedly the figures for the complete year 2017/18, which will be published later this year, will provide an even clearer picture of the reliance on the mitigations package by families across NI. We are now rapidly hurtling towards a welfare reform cliff edge in March 2020 and there is very little time to start thinking about which parts of the package should be retained.
Whilst some aspects of the mitigations package will no longer be required beyond March 2020, there are of course a number of existing mitigations which most definitely do need to continue in recognition of the volume of need and special circumstances in Northern Ireland.
Consider the uproar when it was revealed that the number of homes in Northern Ireland hit by the ‘bedroom tax’ had more than trebled in six months – to 86 housing benefit claimants. Unquestionably we must secure the continued mitigation of the ‘bedroom tax’ due to the non-existence of suitable alternative accommodation and we need the continuation of the now embedded independent advice services set up to help people through the welfare changes, including the rollout of Universal Credit.
Furthermore we need to think about how we can help those affected by cuts made after the ‘Evason’ report was produced: most notably those affected by the implementation of the two child policy, the further cuts to Employment & Support Allowance and the severe limitation in support for widowed parents.
And overshadowing all of this are the risks posed by our democratic deficit with no Minister and no scrutiny committee to monitor the impact of welfare reform; the fact that people living in our poorest areas are already more likely to die prematurely than in any other area of the UK; the precarious position of Northern Ireland in terms of the impact of Brexit; and the looming prospect of recession with latest economic figures indicating worrying levels of economic contraction across the private sector, the public sector, production and construction.
The clock is ticking on the expiry of the mitigations package and the savage cuts this will unleash on thousands of unsuspecting low income households. This must focus minds on securing the necessary agreement and resources.
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