Advice NI Warnings of Misery and Hardship With Looming Mitigations Cliff Edge are Supported by Audit Office Report

 

The Northern Ireland Audit Office has warned that the full impact of welfare reform has not yet been felt in Northern Ireland. Many claimants will face significant hardships when the current mitigation measures come to an end in March 2020.

The issue of welfare reform almost brought the Northern Ireland Assembly to the brink of collapse in 2015 due to concerns about its impact on vulnerable people. A consensus was reached in 2015 with the Fresh Start Agreement to mitigate some of the harshest impacts of welfare reform. Professor Eileen Evason was tasked with identifying the mitigations, which she developed with the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group. The group’s recommendations were adopted in full by the NI Assembly and included mitigation of the bedroom tax, benefit cap and Disability Living Allowance reassessment to Personal Independence Payment.

According to the Northern Ireland Audit Office report, claimants in Northern Ireland have not yet faced the full impact of welfare reform because of the current mitigation measures. These payments will cease in March 2020 and there are currently no plans for a further mitigations package. While the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive exacerbates the position, it is imperative that options are available for Ministers to consider when the Assembly returns.

As the March 2020 deadline approaches, concerns are mounting about a mitigations ‘cliff edge’.  

Bob Stronge, Chief Executive of Advice NI explained:

“We are rapidly hurtling towards a welfare reform cliff edge in March 2020 with the potential ending of the package of support developed by Professor Evason and her Working Group. When it was revealed that 86 housing benefits claimants in Northern Ireland had been hit by the bedroom tax there was uproar: this figure has now reached 175. When the mitigations package comes to an end next year 38,700 households that were previously protected by it will face a collective bill of more than £22 million.

Furthermore, approximately 1,500 low income families with children will find the benefit cap will cost them around £4 million, not to mention all the other mitigation measures. The clock is ticking on the expiry of the mitigations package and the savage cuts that will be unleashed on thousands of unsuspecting low income households. Action and decisions are needed now to extend the mitigations package and provide security for the most vulnerable in our society.”

According to the Audit Office report there is also a significant financial risk to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, (NIHE), the largest social landlord in Northern Ireland, especially with the full roll out of Universal Credit and non-renewal of mitigation measures. Early indications from NIHE are that rent arrears are already increasing significantly against a trend of decreasing arrears, due to the implementation of welfare reforms.

The current qualified and quality-focused advisory services provided by organisations such as Advice NI are a lifeline to those affected by welfare reform. However, the NIAO report has also highlighted the fact that funding for these services will end in March 2020, three years before the migration of all working-age claimants to Universal Credit is complete.

Independent help and support is available to people struggling with welfare reform, this can be reached via the Independent Welfare Changes Helpline on 0808 802 0020.


NOTES:
  1. For further information contact Bob Stronge, CEO or Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy, Advice NI on 028 9064 5919 / 07743496957
  2. Advice NI is the umbrella body for the independent advice network in Northern Ireland
  3. Advice NI and its members dealt with 234, 659 enquiries in 2017/18, with the majority being social security benefits related
  4. If you would like to find out more about the work of the Independent Advice Network in your area or you would like to obtain copies of the various publications produced by Advice NI, please contact Advice NI, 1 Rushfield Avenue, Belfast; Telephone 028 90 645919; E-mail info@adviceni.net; Website www.adviceni.net.
  5. The ‘Welfare Reform: Mitigations on a Cliff Edge’ Report produced by Advice NI, Housing Rights and Law Centre NI is available here www.adviceni.net
  6. Department for Communities: Social Sector Size Criteria / Bedroom Tax: Welfare Supplementary Payments: latest information https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/publications/social-sector-size-criteria-welfare-supplementary-payments
  7. Department for Communities: Annual reports on the operation of the Welfare Supplementary Payments https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/publications/welfare-supplementary-payments-discretionary-support-standards-advice-assistance-and-sanctions
  8. NI Audit Office Report: “Welfare Reforms in Northern Ireland” https://www.niauditoffice.gov.uk/