£1bn could provide extra mitigations against Welfare Reform

7 Jul 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Jul 2017

Kevin Higgins (third from left) at the launch of Advice NI's Universal Credit helpline
Kevin Higgins (third from left) at the launch of Advice NI's Universal Credit helpline

The DUP’s money from Westminster could provide a softer landing for September’s changes to social security – but decisions like this will need to be made by a functioning Executive and Assembly.

Welfare Reform comes to Northern Ireland in September.

A fortnight ago Advice NI called for an agreement in the Stormont talks to ensure we have a functioning Executive to “make critical decisions” as Welfare Reform takes place.

Since then, the DUP struck a confidence-and-supply deal with the Tories to facilitate the latter’s government at Westminster, in return for an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland.

This week Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy at the charity, said that some of this extra money should be used to find extra mitigations for Welfare Reform.

Mr Higgins was part of the team, headed up by Eileen Evason, that drafted the mitigations that will apply locally. This week, speaking with Scope, he called for more buttresses to ease the impact of the reforms on NI.

Ultimately all social security claimants between the ages of 18 and 64 will be moved on to Universal Credit, a multi-faceted benefit that will replace Jobseekers’ Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payments and so on.

Simplifications sounds fine in theory but the new system, driven by Iain Duncan Smith and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), has also seen a philosophical shift that has proven controversial.

Supporters, as well as the official line, say it is about empowerment and incentivisation to work. Criticism of the reforms – which has been loud and plentiful – include claims it is heartless, straightforward welfare cuts, and a system that is designed to punish people who rely on it.


Northern Ireland has already secured some mitigations against Welfare Reform, but Mr Higgins said the group that designed these was working within a budget and would have done more with extra resources.

Within the £1bn secured by the DUP, £100m has been earmarked to work against severe deprivation, and he stated that, by easing Welfare Reform, this money could do to where it is most needed.

“In terms of specific examples, we could look at the two-child policy for claimant families. More often it is poorer families on tax credits, and they are most in need of resources.

“When we were looking at mitigations this was not something we could look at. We only had a limited amount of money but also that aspect of Welfare Reform was yet to be established in London when we were carrying out our review.

“All this reinforces how important it is for us to have local politicians and a local assembly, with local ministers overseen by a local committee.

“It is also important to ensure the best value from the new money. Having an Executive in place that knows Northern Ireland and is accountable to the populace here is vital. Otherwise how will the spending be decided? It’s hard to even be sure it will end up in the areas for which it has been earmarked.

“For instance, originally we had £585m for Welfare Reform mitigation. With the best will in the world, we ended up getting £501m, meaning £84m was redirected to other places. It went to important aspects of policy, such as health, but it shows that money can be set aside for something but that does not mean it will materialise. Having a functioning Executive would help with that, however.

“Local ministers could also do a better job of allowing this money to be spent more innovatively and creatively, compared with say civil servants or a Direct Rule minister. And we think that using some of that for Welfare Reform mitigations is a great idea.

“When you consider the £100m set aside to target areas of severe deprivation, by providing some targeted mitigations it would support families in poverty and children in poverty.”

Other impacts

Social Security does not exist in a vacuum and, beyond the possibility of direct mitigations, good policy in other areas will naturally help make vulnerable people’s lives easier, whether through better healthcare or improved educational prospects or in other ways.

And, when it comes to the £1bn from Westminster, there are three different pots that are to be directed towards health, all of which could help people who will rely on Universal Credit.

Support for immediate health pressures could ease waiting lists and, in some cases, provide treatment to people which could make them able to work; mental health is a significant problem in Northern Ireland and this includes some people who, with the right support, would again move from not being in a position to seek employment into one where they can; and the restructuring of the system foreseen in Transforming Your Care, Donaldson and Bengoa should ultimately make us a healthier populace.

Mr Higgins said a supportive – rather than a purely punitive – approach to employability makes sense and fits with the founding principles of social security. However, he warned that Universal Credit, as it stands, does not fulfil this criteria.

“The whole scope of Universal Credit is about employability, and improving people’s employability. But very often it’s trying to improve the employability of people who have health problems and that is why they are in the situation they are in.

“If you look again at the Beveridge Report, it talks about social benefits, and where the social security system should help people.

“Back then it might have been more to do with industrial injuries, but it talks about the notion of rehabilitation. If you are going to lift that principle and crowbar it into Universal Credit, rather than putting all the responsibility on claimants, who very often are sick and disabled then it would make more sense.”

He told Scope that, where possible, improving people’s ability to work is of course a good thing – but that this requires changes, including further and better support for people who can make such a transition.

Digital age and challenges for the third sector

It isn’t immediately apparent that the funds set aside to improve broadband access in the £1bn from London will also be crucial when it comes to Welfare Reform.

However, as the government continues to move towards digital services it will be critical. And, for the advice sector, this is a relatively new challenge and organisations will have to adapt to help the people who rely on their provision.

Mr Higgins said that there are whole swathes of Northern Ireland with limited or no access to broadband and people in these areas who rely on Universal Credit are going to have to find other ways to apply for and then manage their social security accounts.

Advice organisations will no longer be helping people with piles of paper forms – they will be guiding them through online administration and, in some cases, providing them with a place to access the internet that they would not necessarily find so easily elsewhere.

Welfare Reform is one huge challenge occurring in a generally challenging time. However, there is plenty that can be done to improve Northern Ireland’s prospects in the future. The stumbling block is that, for the best results, we need a functioning Executive.

Stormont has many critics for many understandable and good reasons. But if our own particular problems are to be solved it will have to be local people, subject to local accountability, who take the lead.

If we want to get the best out of this £1bn then that is how it must be administered – a fact that is emblematic of all our social, political and economic issues.

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