A local charity has issued a stark warning to politicians that “misery and hardship” awaits thousands of households if welfare mitigation is withdrawn next year.
In 2015 a consensus was reached that whilst welfare reform would be implemented, the most “savage cuts” to household incomes would be mitigated by implementing recommendations of the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group chaired by Professor Eileen Evason.
Advice NI now fears for affected households as the clock ticks down to March 2020 and the end of the welfare reform mitigation measures.
It has warned of a looming housing crisis as thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of social sector tenants feel the impact of the bedroom tax and find themselves unable to pay their rent, fall into arrears and risk being evicted.
The latest report produced by the Department for Communities highlights that approximately 1,500 families with children, mostly lone parents, are protected from the benefit cap, receiving on average £42 per week.
The Benefit Cap is a limit on the total amount of benefit that people aged 16 to 64 can get. The main objective of the policy is to restrict the amount of welfare support a household can receive to reflect the average take-home pay of working households.
In June 2016 the benefit cap was introduced at £26,000 a year for couples and households with children and £18,200 a year for single people without children. In November 2016 these thresholds were lowered to £20,000 and £13,400 respectively.
As of January this year the Derry and Strabane council area had 210 capped households, the second highest of any local government district. The Foyle area has 160 capped households - the highest of any assembly area in the whole of Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, East Londonderry has an additional 70 households subject to the benefit cap.
At present, approximately 34,000 claimants living in Housing Executive or Housing Association properties are protected from the Social Sector Size Criteria, known as the ‘bedroom tax’, receiving on average £12.50 per week.
Kevin Higgins of Advice NI said “misery and hardship” awaits for those 34,000 households across Northern Ireland that will become impacted by the bedroom tax.
“Also consider those 1,500 families with children, mostly lone parent households, whose protection from the benefit cap will also end in March 2020.
“The benefit cap is of particular concern as all households that are currently protected are families with children; and in terms of local impact, the Derry & Strabane District, has the 2nd most capped households with 16% of the total capped households.
“The average weekly impact of the Benefit Cap in Northern Ireland is a reduction of £47 per week, with 8% of households capped by over £100 per week.
“The mitigation measures recommended by the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group led by Professor Eileen Evason means that these households receive a supplementary payment to protect them from both the bedroom tax and the benefit cap.”
He added: “In many ways we are now in a worse position in terms of Northern Ireland and the need for mitigation. We now have the 2 child cap, a four-year benefit freeze and rising inflation which means that low income households both in and out of work are finding it increasingly difficult to cope.
“We are facing hardship, poverty and evictions on an enormous scale if the welfare reform mitigations fall. We need to protect the current mitigations package and strengthen it to take account of additional challenges such as the 2 child cap and Universal Credit.”
In evidence submitted to the NI Affairs Committee, the British government and local politicians were urged to consider the uproar when it was revealed that the number of homes in Northern Ireland hit by the bedroom tax had more than trebled in six months to 86 housing benefit claimants - 34,000 claimants will see their mitigation end in March 2020.
These 86 claimants lost their bedroom tax mitigation and their arrears have quadrupled from £3,345 to £12,566.
The inquiry was advised to ponder those lone parents with children whose housing support will be cut by over £100 per week due to the benefit cap when mitigation ends in March 2020.
It added: “Consider our most vulnerable sick and disabled claimants (and their cares) who will see their mitigation payments end prematurely in March 2020.
“Why put our most vulnerable citizens through a prolonged period of uncertainty and fear as the clock ticks down until March 2020. Decisions are needed now to remove the cliffedge, maintain the hard-fought for mitigations and honour the promises made in the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015.
“In addition thousands of sick and disabled claimants, and their carers, have received mitigation payments for a limited period as a result of being worse off following the Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment reassessment process.”
If anyone is worried about the impact of welfare reform, please ring the independent welfare changes Helpline 0808 802 0020.
Photo: Witnesses giving evidence at inquiry into welfare policy to NI Affairs Committee
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