Welfare Reform Mitigations: Less than 1 year to cliff edge

With the current mitigations package due to end in 2020, our Head of Policy Kevin Higgins looks at how Welfare Reform will impact thousands of the most vulnerable households in Northern Ireland.
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.

As the clock ticks down to March 2020 and the end of the welfare reform mitigation measures, fears grow about what this may mean for affected households. Will there be a housing crisis as thousands or perhaps tens of thousands social sector tenants feel the impact of the bedroom tax and find themselves unable to pay their rent, fall into arrears and risk being evicted? How will those lone parents hit by the benefit cap feed their children?

To a large extent these fears underscore how effective the mitigation schemes have been in providing protection for those most in need. The latest report produced by the Department for Communities highlights that approximately 1,500 families with children (mostly lone parents) are protected from the benefit cap, receiving on average £42 per week. Approximately 34,000 claimants living in Housing Executive or Housing Association properties are protected from the Social Sector Size Criteria (known as the ‘bedroom tax’), receiving on average £12.50 per week.

In addition thousands of sick and disabled claimants (and their carers) have received mitigation payments for a limited period as a result of being worse off following the Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment reassessment process.

So job well done in terms of putting the mitigations in place, but we now urgently need to consider the looming mitigations cliff edge in March 2020. Whilst some aspects of the mitigations package will largely 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: 34,000 claimants will see their mitigation end in March 2020. Consider the evidence regarding these 86 claimants who lost their bedroom tax mitigation: their arrears have quadrupled from £3,345 to £12,566. Consider those lone parents with children whose housing support will be cut by over £100 per week due to the benefit cap: their mitigation ends in March 2020. Consider our most vulnerable sick and disabled claimants (and their cares) who will see their mitigation payments end prematurely in March 2020.

Why put our most vulnerable citizens through a prolonged period of uncertainty and fear as the clock ticks down until March 2020. Decisions are needed now to remove the cliff edge, maintain the hard-fought for mitigations and honour the promises made in the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015.

There is hope. 

At a recent Advice NI conference which focussed on the mitigations cliff edge, all of the main political parties agreed that the existing package of measures should continue. The Department for Communities own review of the mitigation schemes comments on the bedroom tax mitigation policy as follows:

“Evidence clearly shows that the impact of this policy has not abated and is unlikely to change over the next few years with the number of affected claimants remaining largely constant. It is therefore considered that there is strong evidence to consider the continuation of this policy.”

The report further goes on to comment on the continued mitigation of the benefit cap:

“Alongside Social Sector Size Criteria it has been estimated that the mitigation scheme that would benefit the greatest number of claimants, were it to continue is for the Benefit Cap.”

And it is worth reflecting on what the chair of the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group, Professor Eileen Evason has to say on this matter: 

“What we have, limited as it is, is far in advance of what has been secured by other devolved governments and demonstrates what can be achieved through devolution when people work together.

I am also very aware of the high level of social need that continues to scar so many households and communities and is most evident in the growing reliance on food banks.

We need to start thinking now about which parts of the package should be retained and whether we can help those affected by cuts made since our report: most obviously the implementation of the so-called 2 child policy, cuts to Employment & Support Allowance and the severe limitation in support for widowed parents which is now being put in place.”

Unquestionably we must secure the continued mitigation of the bedroom tax due to the non-existence of suitable alternative accommodation; we need continued benefit cap mitigation to protect the welfare of children in those affected households; and we need the continuation of the now embedded additional 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 families affected by the implementation of the two child policy.

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. We must commit now to remove the threat of the 2020 mitigations cliff edge.