Calls for urgent legislation to prevent cliff edge for thousands of households across NI

17 September 2019

A joint report on welfare from the Northern Ireland Home Affairs and Work and Pensions Committee has warned that tens of thousands of households in Northern Ireland could see their income drop by hundreds of pounds per month, unless urgent action is taken to extend the Social Security “mitigations package”.

What is the mitigations package?

The mitigations package was introduced as part of the “Fresh Start Agreement” in 2015, when the planned implantation of welfare reform brought the Northern Ireland assembly to the brink of collapse. Following negotiations, a package of £585 million was designed to lessen the impact of some of the harshest aspects of the new benefits system.

How has it impacted Northern Ireland households?

The package was specifically designed to protect Northern Ireland from being disproportionately impacted by UK wide welfare policies. One such example is the “bedroom tax”. Because Northern Ireland has a shortage of one-bedroom social housing stock, protections were put in place, so that people in Northern Ireland were not penalised. “Top up” or supplementary payments were offered to claimants who lose out on benefits in some circumstances with particular emphasis on carers and those with illness, disabilities and families. This is due to the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland and the legacy of the troubles. The package received cross-party support and has been considered to be a “life line” in Northern Ireland since its implementation.

When is it due to expire?

The package was supposed to be reviewed in 2018/2019 but was not, due to the lack of functioning executive. It is due to expire in March 2020 unless legislation is passed urgently. Experts have warned that upon expiry, increased hardship and need for foodbanks can be expected. Nigel Mills MP who chaired the joint inquiry said:

“Thousands of claimants are relying on the social security mitigations package- it cannot be allowed to suddenly stop because the corridors and benches of Stormont lie empty. Our report calls for the Secretary of State to recognise the gravity of the situation and to urgently implement legislation to extend the mitigation package beyond March 2020.”

The report also recommends a review of some of the most problematic aspects of universal credit, the tax credits “two child limit” and work on the effectiveness of measures to reduce poverty in Northern Ireland.  While it remains to be seen if these calls will be heeded, the future is uncertain for benefit claimants in Northern Ireland. The effects of welfare reform, even with the mitigations, continue to be felt by those both in and out of work across the province. Time will tell if there may be further hardship ahead.

For any Social Justice or Judicial Review query, contact Laura Banks on 028 9024 3901.