NI facing benefits crisis if mitigations fall, experts warn MPs

Northern Ireland is facing another welfare reform crisis if Stormont support payments end amid the powersharing impasse, MPs have been warned.

A joint sitting of two Westminster committees heard dire predictions of spiralling destitution and debt among benefit recipients if the mitigation measures are discontinued.

A £500 million package of mitigations designed to absorb some of the impact of UK-wide changes to the benefits system is due to expire in March next year.

The support payments were introduced as part of the 2015 Stormont House Agreement, ending months of political deadlock over the introduction of welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.

Reforms including the benefits cap and so-called “bedroom tax” were eventually implemented in the region, after local politicians agreed that those worst impacted would receive additional financial support from Stormont.

Any extension of the mitigation scheme from April 2020 onwards would require the sign-off of ministers.

With no imminent prospect of a return of devolution, the Government is already facing calls to step in to ensure support is protected going forward.

Ulster powersharing
Stormont has been in cold storage since devolution collapsed in early 2017 (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee, which are holding a joint inquiry into welfare policy in the region, heard from a range of witnesses at Stormont on Monday, including Professor Eileen Evason, who chaired a working group that designed the original package.

She warned that a “toxic” combination was looming, with the mitigation payments ending at the same time as a wider rollout of the contentious Universal Credit benefit.

“We hope our politicians are listening on what will happen when the mitigation, particularly with regard to the bedroom tax, comes to an end,” she said.

Kate McCauley, policy and practice manager at Housing Rights, said it was important the scheme was extended, even if the Assembly was still in cold storage next spring.

“I think all of us agree that it’s vitally important that the current protections which are administered from welfare supplementary payments continue to be administered through welfare supplementary payments,” she said.

“That is obviously very challenging in the absence of an Assembly. However, if there were to be no Assembly all of us also agree that it’s vital people continue to receive those protections because the consequence of not receiving those protections is going to mean a rise in arrears, which is going to mean destitution.”

Kevin Higgins, head of policy at Advice NI, said the scale of the looming problem was bigger than the one that almost collapsed the executive in 2015.

“In many ways we are in worse position now in terms of Northern Ireland and the need for mitigation is even greater,” he said.

“We have had a four-year benefit freeze, we are talking about people who are availing of mitigations for the most part that have been hit by that benefit freeze – so if you whip that mitigation payment away from them there just isn’t that cash, people who had savings those savings are gone.

“Nobody has the wherewithal to exist if these mitigations fall.”

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