Welfare Reform may finally be settled.
It’s been a public affairs blockage in Northern Ireland for several years now, a broadly non-sectarian political football where rhetoric has flowed freely amid a slew of accusations and counter-accusations.
Those willing to accede to the relatively smooth passage of Westminster’s reforms in the name of pragmatism were Tory shills with malevolent disregard for the well-being of the most vulnerable folk in Northern Ireland, blood-slurping enemies of the people in thrall to the faceless, inhuman one percent.
Those putting their foot down and refusing to rush through the changes wholesale were self-righteous deniers of reality, willing to take a greater hit in budgetary fines than would be lost to the reforms all in pursuit of pretense, and also keen to keep their constituents on benefits, welfare slaves brainwashed to the life-affirming joys of work.
There have been more sensible debates.
Given it now appears to be over, we should all be grateful that Northern Ireland gets to move on and, whatever your thoughts on Welfare Reform, the reality is it was impossible for anyone to prevent it coming to Northern Ireland in some significant form.
We get to make our own changes armed with the lessons from the teething problems of others. We also get more than that, with mitigation that seems reasonably labelled as the best protections for individuals against some of the biggest transitional changes anywhere in the UK.
The Fresh Start deal announced in November pushed the button on 2014’s Stormont House Agreement – and its Welfare Reform resolution principles – and ultimately brought us to the point we find ourselves at this week.
Professor Eileen Evason was tasked with heading up Welfare Reform Mitigation Working Group, and produce a report about how best to spend our set-aside £585m to ease the transition over the next four years.
On Tuesday she launched the group’s paper at Stormont. The mitigations come in three strands:
- Supplementary payments to those adversely financially affected by Welfare Reform
- Advice and protection for vulnerable people
- A look forward to the introduction of Universal Credit and how best to deal with that
Point one has many parts. Carers, who are in a vulnerable position because carer’s allowance depends on the cared-for person’s entitlements, will receive a year’s grace if the person in their care does not move straight from DLA to PIP.
That will give them time to lodge appeals or otherwise organise themselves to prepare for possible massive reductions in their income.
Those unable to work due to ill health will receive an early warning if their entitlement will be removed, an automatic check performed to see if they then qualify for other benefits and, if neither of those help, a supplementary payment fully covering for the loss will be paid for 12 months providing there is continuing medical evidence about their lack fitness for work.
People with a disability will also receive supplementary payments if they miss out on PIP but lodge an appeal (payments will cease if the appeal fails), or who qualify for PIP but suffer a loss of more than £10 per week (75% of the loss will be paid), and some extra appreciation for conflict-related injuries with regards to qualification for PIP.
The report itself says: “We recognise the limitations of these recommendations which are a consequence of budgetary constraints and our concern to protect the most severely disabled. Clearly, the objective must be to ensure that, with skilled help, those entitled to PIP qualify for it”
To that end, extra help has been earmarked for those with serious disabilities, such as supplementary payments for lower entitlements after transition, and a year’s worth of extra supplementary payments for benefits that are lost rather than reduced.
There are also some mitigations against the benefits cap – which the report predicts will have a low impact in Northern Ireland – and the provision of a discretionary support scheme to replace community care grants and crisis loans.
The second strand recommends support for the advice sector so it, in turn, can provide the best possible guidance to anyone who has a problem with their new benefits, and also a sanding down of the sharper aspects of the sanctions programme that has proved so controversial in England and Scotland.
The third strand looks to mitigate against losses in comparison to the current tax credits scheme – which includes some relatively small support for the third sector to try and help secure a smooth landing for Universal Credit.
So now we have a much better idea how the next couple of years will look in Northern Ireland.
In hindsight – and, frustratingly, at the time – it always looked like Northern Ireland would implement Welfare Reform with a number of mitigations in place, and that is precisely what has happened.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing is the amount of time wasted (think back to just how long this went on and how much other progress simply didn’t happen over that time because of these arguments) and also the level of invective reached during the debate (itself unsurprising).
Atypically, the costs drawn up by the working group came in £84m under budget. Much of this stemmed from adjustments to tax credits made by Chancellor George Osborne in between November and now, but over £10m would have been saved anyway.
This money will be spent elsewhere and, given pressures on the 2016/17 budget debated this week, there are plenty of places it can be put to good use.
Scope is going to take the next couple of days to go through the report and sift for bits of interest – expect more on this agreement next week.
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