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Housing Rights gives Oral Evidence to Westminster Inquiry into Welfare Policy in Northern Ireland

Image from oral evidence session video capture

Housing Rights gave oral evidence to the Joint Inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee. This Inquiry is specifically interested in the planned end of welfare mitigations in March 2020, Universal Credit (UC) and the two child limit.

Claimants affected by welfare reform

The Inquiry began with a panel of claimants who gave powerful evidence on the harsh impact that welfare reform has had on their lives, as well as their fears regarding the end of mitigations in March 2020.

Sabrina, a mother of three, spoke of how she had to wait for seven weeks before receiving her first UC payment, which meant using up all of her savings. As Sabrina explained, since her move to UC “money is really really tight” and she has been relying on foodbanks to meet the needs of her children.

George, who will be affected by the Bedroom Tax come March 2020, spoke of his fear of losing the home in which he has lived for 30 years and in which he and his wife brought up their four children, as George explained, “It’s not a house, it’s my home.” George’s wife has passed away and he told the panel his fears of moving to a house in which he cannot host his adult children as this would mean not just losing his home but losing his family.

Organisations campaigning for reform of welfare policy

The Inquiry then heard from a second panel made up of organisations and individuals campaigning for reform of welfare policy in NI. Alongside Housing Rights’ Policy and Practice Manager Kate McCauley, the panel included representatives from Advice NI, Belfast Women’s Aid and Professor Eileen Evason.

Housing Rights, Advice NI and Belfast Women’s Aid are all members of the Cliff Edge NI Coalition, a group of over 85 organisations in Northern Ireland who have joined together to express concerns about the planned end of welfare mitigations in March 2020. Housing Rights highlighted the Coalition’s two key messages to the Inquiry:

  1. The protection in place to support people impacted by welfare reform through mitigations is due to end in March 2020.
  2. It is important that people impacted by welfare reform in NI continue to be able to access support beyond March 2020. This support should take account of the new challenges people are facing, particularly Universal Credit.

Housing Rights also took the opportunity to emphasise the housing specific impacts of welfare reform including:

Bedroom Tax

  • 34,000 households in receipt of Bedroom Tax mitigations will lose an average of £50 per month from March 2020.
  • Whilst beneficial, welfare mitigations have not been absolute, with 216 households already losing their bedroom tax mitigations.
  • Households who have lost their Bedroom Tax mitigations have experienced an average rise in arrears from £46 to £174.
  • There is a significant mismatch between the type of housing stock available in Northern Ireland and the type required to meet demand; 18% of stock is one bedroom while single applicants account for around 45% of the waiting list.

Universal Credit

  • Over 90% of Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) tenants who are claiming UC are in rent arrears, compared to 40% of tenants on Housing Benefit.
  • Average arrears for NIHE tenants on UC are approx. £700 compared to £190 for those on Housing Benefit.

Private Rented Sector

  • There are more people living in poverty in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) in Northern Ireland compared to the Social Rented Sector (SRS).
  • The PRS in Northern Ireland is fragile with high levels of negative equity and most private landlords only owning one or two properties.
  • Housing Rights’ Landlord Helpline experienced a 600% increase in calls relating to UC with many private landlords unable to withstand the arrears generated by UC and having no choice by to issue a Notice to Quit.
  • There is a need for the Department for Communities to put in place practical support for those living in the PRS to help them sustain their tenancies.

Residual Arrears

  • The NIHE have highlighted that a ‘Residual Arrear’ is accruing on UC claimants’ accounts as a result of UC payment cycles.
  • Some social landlords are being encouraged the take steps to ask their tenants to pay back this arrear, despite the fact the arrear is in no way the fault of the tenant.   

Options post-March 2020

We believe that action must commence to ensure that people are protected from tumbling over this crumbling cliff-edge in March 2020. 

  • It is crucial that welfare mitigations are continued post March 2020, even in the absence of an Assembly, and that they are revised to take account of new challenges such as UC.
  • The cost of not continuing the mitigations would far outweigh the cost of their continuation; for example, each case of homelessness in Northern Ireland costs an average of £15,500.
  • In their review, the Department for Communities identified Discretionary Housing Payments as a possible mechanism for continuing mitigations in the absence of an assembly, if this were the case a number of policy and practical issues would first need to be addressed.

If you would like to hear more, you can watch the full evidence session.

Tagged In

Welfare Reform, Policy

This article was written on 14 June 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.