Calls for suspension of benefits shake-up plan

Bob Stronge, CEO of Advice NI
Bob Stronge, CEO of Advice NI

A charity has called for planned changes to the benefit system in Northern Ireland to be halted until the Province’s current political crisis can be resolved.

Universal Credit – which will replace six existing benefits with one single payment – is to be introduced on a phased basis starting from tomorrow.

New claimants from the Limavady area will be the first to be affected. It will then be gradually rolled out across the Province.

The welfare shake-up is expected to affect more than 300,000 families in Northern Ireland.

But Advice NI has said that – given the absence of a functioning Executive – the planned rollout should be suspended.

The organisation’s CEO, Bob Stronge said: “We must have an Assembly, minister and committee in place to provide oversight for such a significant change to the social security system in Northern Ireland – and it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be a political vacuum when the planned rollout of Universal Credit commences.

“We are therefore calling for the rollout to be halted until we have an Assembly in place to provide the required oversight and monitoring role – with the ability to take critical decisions as required.”

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong echoed the charity’s call, claiming there remains a “lack of clarity” around planned mitigation measures for those affected by the changes.

She added: “A number of regulations relating to welfare reform were laid in the Assembly last year but these didn’t extend to Universal Credit.

“These regulations are needed to mitigate the bedroom tax within universal credit, so perform a vital function.”

The Strangford MLA called for immediate suspension of Universal Credit “to stop any people here suffering unnecessarily”.

She added: “Without a functioning Executive restored as soon as possible, these vital decisions will be left in limbo.”

But Denis McMahon from the Department for Communities has said there will be mitigations in place when the new payment scheme is rolled out.

He told the BBC: “The more people work they more they can keep, that’s a key principal of Universal Credit.

“Our intention is to continue to mitigate payments and in addition there’s a transitional payment that applies if people find there is a delay.”