Growing concerns that Department for Communities is ‘out of touch’ over effects of its policies on benefit claimants

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BY KEVIN HIGGINS, HEAD OF POLICY, ADVICE NI

Ongoing changes in social security legislation have had a punitive effect on benefits claimants, exacerbating the cycle of poverty and need across Northern Ireland. It is frustrating that we do not have a functioning Assembly, Minister or scrutiny Committee to oversee, guide and mitigate these important changes.

The Department for Communities is responsible for delivering social security in Northern Ireland; it is also responsible for leading efforts across Government aimed at tackling poverty.

There is growing concern that the Department is out of touch in terms of the impact some of its policies is having on communities across Northern Ireland; a growing concern that there is a disconnect emerging in accountability in terms of its current actions and current path; that rather than being a Department ‘for communities’ it is sometimes seen as a Department ‘against communities’.

For example:

Personal Independence Payment (PIP): our advisers are raising issues on a daily basis, in particular regarding the PIP assessment, the role of PIP decision makers and fundamentally the place of the claimant within the process;

Universal Credit (UC): the fiasco surrounding cake for staff when UC claimants are waiting for at least five weeks for a first payment, going hungry, going to food banks, falling into rent arrears;

The welfare reform mitigations: the looming March 2020 mitigations cliff edge (for example 34,000 claimants affected by the bedroom tax both in and out of work getting help to the tune of £22 million per year) and we have a Department failing to plan to ensure the necessary systems and arrangements are in place to continue the mitigations beyond 2020 or even failing to acknowledge that there is an issue;

We look forward to the Department re-focusing and re-prioritising its efforts towards providing greater protection for the most vulnerable in our community.

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