A joint inquiry into welfare policies and their impact by the Northern Ireland Affairs (NIAC) and Work and Pensions Committees is tasked with answering “serious questions” that “risk being ignored” in the absence of an Executive, says Committee chair Nigel Mills MP.
The inquiry has heard evidence given that the end of support payments, currently scheduled for 2020, would create a “toxic” combination when paired with the further rollout of the Universal Credit benefit. Eileen Evason, who chaired the working group that designed the welfare mitigation package, told the inquiry: “We hope our politicians are listening on what will happen when the mitigation, particularly with regard to the bedroom tax, comes to an end.”
The inquiry was convened to investigate welfare policy and its effects in Northern Ireland in light of the passage of the Northern Ireland Budget Act and with the forthcoming end of the mitigation package that was delivered as part of the Fresh Start Agreement in mind. The inquiry was opened in April and stopped taking written submissions on 24 May. In the midst of the inquiry, Andrew Murrison MP was replaced as NIAC Chair by Simon Hoare MP.
The Budget Act set out the funding for departments, while the mitigation package was the £585 million in extra social security funding set out in the Fresh Start Agreement. That funding currently provides payments to recipients in order to offset the effects of the benefit cap and bedroom tax. One of the inquiry’s responsibilities will be to determine the success of these payments and the effects of having higher benefit entitlements in Northern Ireland as compared to the rest of the UK.
Kate McCauley, Policy and Practice Manager of Housing Rights told the inquiry that it was essential that the scheme be extended, even in the continued absence of Stormont. “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. Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy for Advice NI, added that “in many ways we are in a worse position now in terms of Northern Ireland and the need for mitigation is even greater”.
With 1,500 families with children, mostly lone parents, receiving an average of £42 a week according to the latest figures released by the Department for Communities, Higgins told the inquiry that those families, along with the 34,000 to be hit should the bedroom tax come into real effect in Northern Ireland, face “misery and hardship”.
“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,” Higgins told the inquiry. “Nobody has the wherewithal to exist if these mitigations fall.”
Evidence submitted to the inquiry said that the number of households losing their bedroom tax mitigation had more than trebled in six months. The 86 families affected saw their arrears quadruple from £3,345 to £12,566. The inquiry will also study the effects of the two child cap that limits families to only being capable of claiming benefits for two children.