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Northern Ireland Office report released on the future of welfare mitigations

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) released a report providing an update on the future welfare mitigation support measures that will be in place after March 2020, in line with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019.

In 2015, under Fresh Start Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive committed £585 million over 4 years to a mitigations package which, in the words of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, has insulted people here from the full impact of welfare reform. In their report the NIO highlighted the impact of the mitigations scheme so far and the fact that in 2018/19 a total of £62.1 million was paid to almost 73,000 claimants. These mitigations are due to end in March 2020, in just 116 days’ time.

32,000 claimants would see income cuts if bedroom tax isn't mitigated

The NIO further noted that in relation to the bedroom tax, the number of claimants affected over the next few years would be largely constant. The most recent assessment shows that, if bedroom tax welfare supplementary payments were to end, around 32,000 claimants would be affected. The projected cost to continue to mitigate the bedroom tax, in the 2020/21 financial year alone, on that basis, would be £22 million.

The NIO explained that in the absence of legislation, the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme may be used to provide financial support for some affected claimants. However, the Discretionary Housing Payment provision would not be an extension of the existing welfare mitigation schemes as it requires an application from the claimant and it is a discretionary scheme, which means that a payment cannot be legally guaranteed.

Exploring all options

In the continued absence of the Assembly, the report confirmed that the Department for Communities is taking the necessary steps to prepare for a possible extension of the existing welfare mitigation schemes should appropriate legislation be made. Simultaneously, the Department is working with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive on preparatory work to broaden the eligibility criteria for the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme. As no decision has been made as to the nature of financial support available from 1 April 2020, officials continue to work on exploring all options.

The NIO further explained that the Department will also shortly commence a comprehensive programme of engagement with all claimants who are expected to be impacted by the termination of the welfare mitigation schemes.

We cannot allow vital protections to end

The Cliff Edge Coalition, a group over  100 member organisations, including Housing Rights, who have come together to highlight their shared concerns about the end of the welfare reform mitigations, explained in a press release why the NIO must act urgently to introduce the legislation.

“We are at a critical stage in this process, we do not have the luxury of time and in the absence of a devolved government we need to see Westminster step in and legislate to ensure the most vulnerable in society are protected.

These mitigation payments have ensured that those most in need have been protected from some of the most severe elements of welfare reform. In 2015 when the package was agreed, the immediate challenges were protecting people in NI from the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’, the benefit cap and the transition from DLA to PIP. There was widespread cross party agreement then and this commitment cannot change post March 2020.

In the years since the mitigations package was introduced, we have had new and growing challenges such as the introduction of Universal Credit, including the two-child limit, as well as cuts to housing benefits in the private rented sector. It is vital the mitigations package is not only extended beyond March, but also strengthened, to take account of these new challenges. It is estimated that the two-child limit alone will push a further 9,000 children in Northern Ireland into poverty by the time Universal Credit is rolled out.

The hardship caused by the end of mitigations would be exacerbated by the fact that many people are unaware of the approaching Cliff Edge. Indeed, earlier this year a Department for Communities survey found that 69% of respondents were unaware that their bedroom tax Welfare Supplementary Payments would end next March.

In less than four months’ time these vital protections are due to end. This cannot be allowed to happen.” Andy McClenaghan, Cliff Edge Coalition

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Welfare Reform

This article was written on 5 December 2019. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.