NI facing ‘toxic’ welfare crisis, MPs told

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MPs from two Westminster committees have heard from experts at Stormont that NI is facing another crisis in welfare reform if a mitigation package agreed by Stormont is not extended.

The NI Affairs and Department of Work and Pensions Committees heard predictions of spiralling destitution among benefit claimants if a £585m package agreed by DUP and Sinn Fein ministers is not continued past March 2020.

Prof Eileen Evason warned MPs about the impact of the loss of the mitigation package on welfare claimants

Prof Eileen Evason warned MPs about the impact of the loss of the mitigation package on welfare claimants

The package was intended to shield NI claimants from the worst effects of welfare reforms across the UK.

North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon said the authorities are “always pushing” how great the new Universal Credit (UC) benefit is, which merges six benefits for working age adults into one new benefit.

But experts warned that UC claimants can be left without money for up to eight weeks during their application.

Lady Sylvia asked: “What about Department of Communities officials here? Do they understand that on the ground, Universal Credit has created more problems than it has solved?”

Kevin Higgins, head of policy at Advice NI, replied: “They ought to get it. Locally you will have seen the News Letter a couple of weeks ago where there was a whole week of stories and specials on Universal Credit.

“The cases highlighted that 92% of Housing Executive tenants that are on Universal Credit are in housing arrears. That is incredible.”

Experts briefed MPs that the new child benefit cap of two children will hit NI especially hard because families here have up to 2.7 children – much higher than GB.

The new ‘bedroom tax’, which penalises unused bedrooms, is also misplaced in NI because 18% of NI housing is for single tenants – but 41% of people on the waiting list are single, MPs heard.

The experts unanimously called for the extension of the mitigation package; it is reported that some 60% of the £585m has not been spent.

Asked what will happen when the mitigation package ends in March, Prof Eileen Evason, chair of the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group, said it “will be a toxic combination” of Universal Credit and the loss of bedroom tax mitigation payments.