Questions remain on extension of Welfare Reform mitigations
It’s four years since Welfare Reform mitigations were secured.
In what was a major success for devolved government here, a package of special measures worth £585m was put together to protect some of the most vulnerable claimants in Northern Ireland from the realignment of social security.
The mitigations were welcomed from many quarters – but, since they were established, the clock has been ticking.
The £585m package – itself beset with several problems in implementation resulting in an underspend – ceases at the end of this month.
For several years, campaigners have been calling for an extension of the mitigations to be planned for and put in place. These campaigners include the Cliff Edge Coalition NI, a group of over 70 organisations in Northern Ireland (one of which is NICVA).
Now, with the cliff edge in sight, it looks like the calls from campaigners may finally be answered. However, nothing is certain yet, except that time is short.
The mitigations package consists of several parts.
The bulk of it comes in supplementary payments that reduce the loss of income for some of the most vulnerable claimants as they move from the old system to the new: Universal Credit (UC).
This includes payments making up the different between what claimants receive under UC and what they would have received had the bedroom tax and the benefits cap not applied. It also includes money covering the loss of income as a result from moving from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payments (PIP), paid for up to one year.
The rest of the mitigations is comprised of a discretionary support fund – one off grants or loans for individuals or families in particular hardship – and funding for independent advice organisations to help claimants.
Welfare Reform already broadly reduces the income of individuals or families who claim – often by thousands of pounds per year. If Northern Ireland loses its mitigations, this burden will only increase.
Extending these mitigations requires legislation, either at Westminster or at Stormont, but the Tory government in London has always been extremely unlikely to pursue this. Previous Secretary of State Julian Smith stated in January, before the reformation of Stormont, that this was a matter for the devolved institutions.
Stormont just in time?
Stormont, therefore, has been restored just in time to extend the mitigations. In theory.
Addressing the March 31st cliff edge is explicitly mentioned in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal that brought the Assembly and Executive back to their feet.
Per the agreement: “The Executive will extend existing welfare mitigation measures beyond March 2020, when they are currently due to expire…
“A review of welfare mitigation measures will be taken forward as a priority, with any agreed measures in place before March 2020.”
Those commitments are pretty much all NDNA, while they are brief, they leave little room for interpretation.
Moreover, the new Minister for Communities is Sinn Fein’s Deirdre Hargey, whose political party has long opposed benefit reductions in principle, while one of the first things Ms Hargey did as minister was to announce her intention to extend the mitigations.
Early in February the minister announced plans to extend mitigations of the bedroom tax, adding that: “There are also other mitigations which need to be looked at as we review the mitigation measures we committed to in ‘New Decade, New Approach’. I will continue to work with stakeholders in moving forward with that important piece of work.”
Determination without detail
This commitment was reiterated in a ministerial response to a written question made last week. Answering a question from Karen Mullan MLA (a party colleague of the minister) querying “whether supplementary payments will continue after 31 March 2020 for people who are worse off after transitioning from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment”, Ms Hargey wrote:
“As agreed in New Decade, New Approach, I am committed to extending all of the existing welfare mitigation measures, including those for people who are worse off after moving from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment.
“Officials are currently drafting the necessary legislation to extend the existing mitigation schemes beyond 31 March 2020. The draft Regulations will be laid before the Assembly for consideration in the coming weeks.”
That sounds great, too. But, like most of the above, it is a firm commitment without detail and we are now at the time when detail is needed.
The fact that the bedroom tax mitigations seem to be a step or two closer to the finish line than the other aspects could be read as a good sign (bedroom tax is nearly sorted) or a bad one (why aren’t all the other strands at the same stage of development?).
This should be ok, probably
Scope spoke this week with Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy at Advice NI, an organisation that has played a leading role in campaigning for the mitigations to continue (including as a member of the Cliff Edge Coalition).
He said he was hopeful the return of Stormont is a “game changer” for Welfare Reform mitigations in Northern Ireland and welcomed the new minister’s commitments to that effect.
He also noted the extensive body of evidence showing just why Northern Ireland is a special case and these extra measures are necessary – such as the joint report from the Committee for Work and Pensions and NI Affairs Committee at Westminster, the findings of which were firmly in support of the supplementary help for claimants continuing.
“It still does require legislation and as things stand right now I’ve not seen any draft legislation that’s been brought forward, and we are a matter of days away from March 31st, so time is very tight and some people might be concerned about that.
“However, I can only go by what the minister said, and she said if for any reason there’s a delay in getting this passed that after March 31st no payments will stop as a result of that delay.”
Mr Higgins added that there are indications the mitigations package could be improved in the future, such as by relaxing the criteria for the discretionary support fund which he said were “much too harsh, and the fund is not always getting help to the people who need it.”
So, maybe we should be optimistic. Or maybe not. Remember, Stormont has no money. Finance Minister Conor Murphy said just a couple of weeks ago that the Executive faces a £600m shortfall just to meet the current demands of its departments.
Welfare Reform is crucial. But so is health reform (which can only add to that enormous shortfall). So is education, and almost half of schools are over budget. So is the chronically underfunded mental health sector. So is the environment.
Stormont was reformed with politicians from all corners saying they know tough choices and long-term planning are essential. These choices are being made and these plans are being formed right now.
Welfare Reform mitigations protect some of the most vulnerable people in society. Hopefully legislation passes, and soon, that continues these measures (or, if there is some genuine delay, payments continue). Or perhaps they will be a victim of the tough choices facing our politicians.
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