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Welfare policy in Northern Ireland: Inquiry Report

The Work and Pensions and Northern Ireland Affairs Committees have published their joint report following the Inquiry into Welfare policy in Northern Ireland.

Welfare Reform Mitigations

Housing Rights welcomes the joint committee’s recognition that:

“The ending of the mitigation payments in March 2020—in particular, the ending of Social Sector Size Criteria and benefit cap mitigations—would mean that tens of thousands of households in Northern Ireland would see their incomes suddenly fall, some by hundreds of pounds per month.”

The joint committee have therefore recommended:

  • Extending the mitigation package post March 2020, for a further four years.
  • Rolling over the contract for independent advisory services after 2020.
  • Making the criteria for Discretionary Support Awards less restrictive (including removing the requirement that claimants take out a UC advance before being eligible for the UC Contingency Fund).

Legislating for continued mitigations

Whilst their report notes that the mitigation package falls within devolved legislative competence, the joint committee highlight that “the circumstances surrounding the package ending are clearly exceptional: a potential drastic impact on vulnerable people and no Assembly to extend the legislation.” They therefore recommend that the UK Government bring forward legislation to extend the mitigation package and that:

  • The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland makes a statement to parliament making clear the UK Government’s intention to pass legislation to extend the mitigation package, and bring forward such legislation to come into effect before the end of March 2020.
  • The UK Government provide funding for the mitigation package in a Northern Ireland Budget Act.

The Department for Communities has said that it would need to start contacting claimants in Autumn 2019 if the mitigation package was not to continue. The joint committee is therefore calling on the UK Government to act quickly to end this uncertainty.

Discretionary Housing Payments

In the absence of an NI Executive, and if the aforementioned legislation fails to be implemented, the joint committee recommend the use of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) to continue to mitigate to mitigate the bedroom tax and benefit cap. Nevertheless, they recognise that the use of DHPs would be “operationally extremely challenging” and, given their discretionary nature, could pose a “serious risks to claimants” who may slip through the net.  The joint committee therefore state that the UK Government has a responsibility to avoid this option having to be used.

Strengthening the mitigations package

Housing Rights strongly welcomes the joint committee’s recommendations to extend the mitigation package beyond March 2020. However, we believe it is important that the mitigations are not only continued but strengthened, taking into consideration the new challenges that people are facing such as Universal Credit, and the needs of those in the Private Rented Sector  where social security changes over the past decade have made it increasingly difficult for low income renters to meet their housing costs and where the bedroom tax has, in effect, been in operation since 2012. Please see Housing Rights’ written evidence to the Inquiry for further information.

Universal Credit

The joint committee further reported on the impact of Universal Credit (UC) in NI. As well as highlighting that the ‘five week wait’ before claimants receive their first payment is a “flaw with the design” of UC, the joint committee considered the ‘flexibilities’ available to UC claimants in NI. Housing Rights particularly welcomes the consideration given to issues arising from direct payments to landlords which have resulted in arrears for many of our clients.

The joint committee recognised the problem of residual and technical rent arrears that build up as a result of migration to UC and the manner in which direct payments to landlords are made. They recommend that:

  • The Department for Communities set out in detail, the work it is currently doing to address the build-up of tenant arrears (including technical and residual), and its plans for any future work in this area.

The joint committee further highlighted the higher levels of error due to the delay in automating UC flexibilities in NI, which has resulted in direct payments to landlords being manually processed. Their report therefore recommends that:

  • The Department for Work and Pensions work with the Department for Communities to ensure that the planned automations of UC flexibilities in Northern Ireland are in place within 18 months.

Read the full report here.

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Benefits, Policy