Former health minister reveals concerns over welfare shake-up plans

The Accident and Emergency Department at the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine

The Accident and Emergency Department at the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine

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FORMER health minister Michael McGimpsey has said the new welfare reforms could adversely affect “the working poor” even more than the unemployed.

The South Belfast MLA was expressing his concerns after the Welfare Reform Bill passed the second reading stage in the Assembly late on Tuesday night.

The new proposals would bring about the abolition of working and child tax credits, as well as employment, incapacity and housing benefits – replaced by a single universal credit for low income families and individuals both whether working or not.

A personal independence payment, reassessed every three years, will also replace Disability Living Allowance.

Mr McGimpsey said: “While I accept that the universal payment may result in a simpler benefit system and hopefully a higher uptake by those low income families who are struggling to make ends meet I am concerned that many hard working families will be left out of pocket by the changes. I believe that there is a misconception that this Bill is all about people who don’t work and don’t want to work but that is not the case.

“Universal benefit will replace working and child tax credit as well as housing benefit which many working families receive.”

Mr McGimpsey said a continued rise in the cost of living and benefit cuts have led to a growth in the number of working poor in Northern Ireland.

“There are 40,000 children in Northern Ireland living in severe poverty – 36 per cent of these are in households where at least one person works. I believe the welfare reform bill in its current state will only compound this situation.”

The Bill was passed despite strong opposition from Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

All parties in the Executive raised concerns over the legislation but they clashed over how to achieve changes.

Sinn Fein wanted to defer introducing the measures pending further negotiations with the coalition Government in London.

But the DUP warned that any delay to the legislative timetable would have had disastrous consequences, claiming that breaking so-called parity with the rest of the UK would cost the executive hundreds of millions of pounds.

The DUP said changes, within the terms of parity, could be obtained at the Bill’s next Assembly stage – when it is scrutinised by a Stormont committee – without the need to kill the legislation outright.

A Sinn Fein amendment calling for a deferral was defeated in the Assembly by 60 votes to 42.

The unamended Bill was voted through to the committee stage by the same margin. Sinn Fein did not opt to lodge a so-called Petition of Concern.

Michele Campbell is the district manager at Larne Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) and she has seen a “massive increase” in the numbers seeking help given the “special circumstances” in the Province.

“For example there’s a higher rate of people on disability benefits in Northern Ireland pro rata as a legacy of the Troubles,” she said.

One of the major areas of concern is plans to replace weekly benefit payments with a single monthly universal credit.

“Vulnerable people struggle to manage money for a lot of different reasons,” she said.

“If you’re dealing with somebody with mental health issues, gambling addiction, alcohol addiction, drug addiction, and you give them all that money in one go, what are they going to do? Especially if you’re in debt, struggling to heat your home and to make ends meet.”

Asked if the new benefits changes will ultimately make people worse off, she said: “In my opinion, yes.”

Pol Callaghan, CAB’s head of policy, said although he supports some aspects of the proposals, the likely impact of the Bill “will result in many existing claimants seeing a reduction in their entitlements”.

He said: “Changes to benefits and taxation in the present five-year period will hit Northern Ireland hardest of any region outside London.”