MPs warned of sharp rise in poverty and homelessness over loss of welfare mitigations package in Northern Ireland

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Kilcooley Women’s Centre client Sabrina Lilley who talked to the inquiry at Stormont today about her experiences claiming Universal Credit. She was accompanied by her support worker Roberta Gray from Kilcooley Women’s Centre

By Una Murphy, VIEWdigital

Northern Ireland welfare experts have warned of a “toxic combination” of Bedroom Tax and Universal Credit causing a sharp rise in poverty and homelessness next year.

They were giving evidence to MPs from two Westminster committees at Stormont today (June 10). Women from the Kilcooley area of Bangor, Co Down also gave MPs first-hand accounts of their experiences claiming benefits, including the controversial Universal Credit.

Professor Eileen Evason former Chair, Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group told MPs that people on benefits in Northern Ireland faced a “toxic combination” of the loss of the mitigations package – which has saved many households from paying Bedroom Tax – and claiming Universal Credit. She told MPs that: “compassion has been washed out of the system”.

MPs from the Northern Ireland Affairs and Work and Pensions Committees heard that Northern Ireland faced additional problems due to the legacy of The Troubles with a high suicide rate, a higher level of poverty than other parts of the UK and a higher level of disabilities. The two-child benefit cap would also have a bigger impact on women in Northern Ireland due to lack of abortion services and bigger families, the MPs were told.

Kelly Andrews Vice Chair, Belfast Area Domestic & Sexual Violence and Abuse Partnership and Chief Executive, Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid said women make up 92% of lone parents in Northern Ireland. She said one woman who had escaped domestic abuse and came to a refuge had put in a claim for Universal Credit in January this year and the first payment did not come until May,

She told MPs: “The woman had no money to feed her children for four months and had to get help from food-banks and charities such as St Vincent de Paul”. She added: “If the charitable services weren’t there would the children have had to be taken into care.?”

Ms Andrews told MPs that a victim of domestic abuse faced isolation and coercive control which could make it difficult to access welfare benefits.

Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy, Advice NI added that local people “would be in a worse position than when mitigations were put in place”. He warned that in addition to those who had claimed and faced delays receiving Universal Credit that was another group of people who gave up and did not complete the process because they found it too difficult and both these groups were going to foodbanks for help.

Kate McCauley, Policy and Practice Manager, Housing Rights said 17% of people of Northern Ireland lived in the private rented sector and 40% of the calls to the charity’s helpline were from tenants in the private rented sector who were finding rents too expensive.

The mitigations package – which stopped some UK welfare cuts being introduced to Northern Ireland – is due to end next March. The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) has estimated that 34,000 households will immediately have to pay the Bedroom Tax and lose support totalling £22million. There will also be 1,500 families with children from Northern Ireland hit by a Benefit Cap next March; they are set to lose support of £3million.

Voluntary sector organisations have launched a campaign to extend the mitigations package for people on welfare benefits in Northern Ireland. They warned that people on welfare benefits, particularly those living in the private rented sector, could fell into debt and face eviction and homelessness.

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