Close to the edge: Northern Ireland’s welfare reforms

Nicola McCrudden, Senior Consultant at Campbell Tickell details Northern Ireland’s welfare reforms.

Measures in Northern Ireland designed to absorb some of the impact of the UK wide changes to the benefits system are due to expire in March 2020. The £500-million mitigations package was agreed as part of the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015, bringing an end to political deadlock over welfare reform. Ironically, the lack of a Stormont Executive today is threatening the continuation of these measures, including financial support for those impacted by the bedroom tax.

Social landlords, advice services and support groups alike are calling on the UK government to extend the supports in place. They have formed a coalition of around 100 members and have brilliantly stepped up campaigning activity in recent months, mainly through social media @CliffEdgeNI. With the pause button on Stormont, the supplementary mitigation payments could simply stop, plunging thousands into hardship, arrears and homelessness.

Size matters

Figures collated by the NI Housing Executive show that roughly 30% of its tenants and 25% of housing association tenants will be affected – around 34,000 people. For some social housing tenants, financial support has already ended because of ‘under-occupying’ – they have moved to a property of the same size or larger. It may be a small number of cases, but landlords are already reporting significant increases in rent arrears.

Just like elsewhere, NI doesn’t have the right stock to meet the social sector size criteria. For example, less than one-fifth (18%) of stock has one bedroom, but just under half of the waiting list comprises single people of working age. Even if the right-sized housing was available, in the right places, it wouldn’t be feasible to move everyone in time anyway.

Need for an extension

Any extension of the mitigation scheme from April 2020 onwards would require the sign-off of ministers, and therein lies the problem. There is currently no appetite from either of the two main political parties in NI to restore the Assembly anytime soon. Tracy Meharg, permanent secretary at the Department for Communities, told a House of Commons Committee recently that a roll-over of the mitigation scheme would require legislation passed by either Stormont or the House of Commons.

Worryingly, she also reported that research by her department suggests around 70% of those receiving the supplementary payments are not aware it is part of a mitigation package, and could end. The resulting joint report from the NI Affairs and Work and Pensions Committees, published early this month, urges Westminster to extend the mitigation package beyond March 2020 for a further four years.

Cliff edge

So, we are close to the edge. It is unimaginable to think there won’t be an intervention to stop us going over. But then we are in uncharted waters and Brexit is dominating the political agenda. There is a real possibility that legislation necessary to continue the mitigation measures simply won’t happen.

Of course, we hope contingency plans are not required and that a way forward will be found soon. However, social landlords need to be prepared, if they are not already, for the worst-case scenario.

 

To discuss this article, contact Nicola McCrudden: nicola.mccrudden@campbelltickell.com

This article is also featured in the latest CT Brief, Issue 45 – Ireland edition

Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

We are a values-based business and firmly place the positioning of our support and challenge on helping organisations to attain change that is well thought through, planned and sustainable. At CT, we want to help organisations create the landscape within which we ourselves would like to exist: fair, inclusive, diverse, engaged and transparent. We build from our values in how we approach all our work as a practice.

Find out more about CT’s services.