Universal credit has arrived in Northern Ireland

Laura Banks

28 September 2017


The introduction of Universal Credit on 27th September 2017 has brought about the beginning of a major change in how benefits are paid in Northern Ireland.

We have provided you with a run-down on this new benefit and the potential pitfalls of implementation within NI.

What is Universal Credit?

Universal Credit is a new benefit for everyone of working age who claims one or more income-related benefits. It will replace the following benefits in Northern Ireland: -

- Income-related Jobseekers and Employment and Support Allowance

- Income Support

- Child and Working Tax Credit

- Housing Benefit

It has been described as “the biggest overhaul to the welfare system since the 1940s” and it is estimated that some 312,000 households in Northern Ireland will be impacted.

When is Universal Credit being introduced?

Universal Credit is being introduced in Limavady on 27th September 2017 and will then gradually be introduced in towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland until full implementation in September 2018.

Why the need for a change to benefits? 

The current changes to benefit payments have been designed to make work pay, instead of people seeing their income drop when they come off benefits and in to low paid work. They were also supposed to simplify the system and reduce the governments fraud and error bill.

However, with the benefit receiving an insurmountable amount of “bad press” in Great Britain, where it has been said to trigger “debt, hunger and hardship”.  There is therefore a growing concern about the implications of Universal Credit for Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable people.

What are the concerns about Universal Credit? 

Whilst many claimants will be in work, those who are unemployed depend on the welfare system for all of their income, whether in the short or long term, perhaps due to an illness or disability, a learning difficulty or even redundancy. Inevitably, they incorporate some of society’s most vulnerable. Here are some of the problems that NI claimants may encounter with Universal Credit:-

1. Applications have to be made online

The first barrier that vulnerable claimants in Northern Ireland face under this new benefit is actually making a claim in the first place given that the government insists that applications must be made online.  Any change of circumstances must be reported online as will any change of earnings.  Claimants must firstly have access to the internet, either their own or via somewhere accessible and secure in the public domain. They must then be computer literate enough to cope with the extensive online application.

2. Delays in payment 

The biggest problem which arose as this benefit was rolled out in Great Britain seems to have been errors and delays in the IT system.  These caused significant difficulties for claimants and landlords alike. It has been reported that half of all claimants in England fell behind with rent for the first time since Universal Credit was introduced.  In addition, one in four claimants had to wait for more than 42 days for their first payment.

Research suggests a link between a marked rise in homelessness and the implementation of Universal Credit. This is disturbing, especially when the benefit is being introduced here in the run up to Christmas in Limavady, Ballymoney, Magherafelt and Coleraine.

It should be said that Northern Ireland claimants may be eligible for mitigation in the form of Welfare Supplementary payments and this should hopefully minimise the impact of delays.

3. Sanctions for ‘rule-breaking’

Another unsettling feature of Universal Credit is the increasing imposition of sanctions for claimants who don’t ‘follow the rules’.  For example, if you fail to attend or are late for an appointment or interview, or if you fail to undertake paid or unpaid work, you may be sanctioned by losing out on payments for up to 18 months.

Time will tell how the Universal Credit will fare here in Northern Ireland but with our current political vacuum and the existing housing problems, one worries that there may be trouble ahead.

How can I get advice and assistance with my claim for Universal Credit? 

Anyone who is concerned about the impact of Universal Credit or who is having problems because of it should in the first instance contact an advice agency, such as Citizens AdviceAdvice NI or Housing Rights.   These organisations offer free and impartial advice and may be able to speak with the benefits agencies on your behalf or help you with an application or appeal. They may also be able to signpost claimants who need further help to other organisations, charities, food banks and even solicitors.

There have been several successful legal challenges in Great Britain since the introduction of Universal Credit and there may be scope for litigation here in Northern Ireland, particularly in the area of sanctions.  As benefit claimants are generally eligible for Legal Aid, anyone requiring legal advice who has not been able to resolve their issue through an Advice Centre, should contact a solicitor experienced in Social Security law for legal advice at no cost to them.

Laura Banks specialises in Social Security Law, Employment Law and Judicial review in the firm of Francis Hanna & Co Solicitors.  For further information on Universal Credit, Laura can be contacted on lbanks@fhanna.co.uk