The Northern Ireland Executive must act to protect low-income families from the effects of benefits changes, says Goretti Horgan
At least 6,500 children in Northern Ireland will be affected by the benefit cap imposed by Westminster in the 2012 Welfare Reform Act.
This is one of many changes which will see living standards of families with children here fall sharply over the next three years, as detailed in a report for the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People by myself and my University of Ulster colleague Marina Monteith.
Changes to the tax and benefit system which come before the Assembly soon do not only affect children whose families are dependent on benefits.
All families with children will be impacted – with low-income families, whether in-work or unemployed, taking the hardest hit.
As hundreds of millions of pounds are taken out of the economy, the region as a whole will suffer more than any other part of the UK, outside London. Already, changes to housing benefit have seen families in the private rented sector and owner-occupiers having to sacrifice food and heat to keep a roof over their children’s heads.
Changes still working their way through the system will mean that owner-occupiers who are out of work for more than two years will soon get no help at all with their mortgage interest, while families in the private rented sector – more than half of them lone parents – will see housing benefit paid only at the level of the bottom third of rents.
For now, these families are being kept in their homes by discretionary hardship payments, which are available for six months to a year, but there is a limited amount of money to cover such payments.
Young people with severe disabilities, or life-threatening illnesses like muscular dystrophy or cancer, will be badly affected if the Assembly confirms Westminster plans to abolish ‘youth’ employment and support allowance (ESA).
If it is abolished, it will leave some of these young people without any income and will mean that others will be unable to afford further or higher education.
Given our high levels of mental ill-health, linked to conflict-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is much concern about the abolition of disability living allowance (DLA) and its replacement with personal independence payments (PIP).
The fact that PIP will be dependent on a medical assessment similar to the work capability assessment is particularly worrying.
The Treasury has been clear it wants a 20% cut in the DLA/PIP budget and those with mental ill-health are being particularly targeted to lose DLA.
On the new medical tests for PIP, our report suggests the Assembly establish an expert group, including psychiatrists with expertise in PTSD and other experts in disability. This expert group could develop an assessment that takes account of the particular issues of a region emerging from conflict.
As a matter of urgency, the Department for Social Development should work with mortgage lenders and landlords to bring down rents and ensure that families do not have to spend money on rent which is supposed to provide necessities for children. DSD also needs to work with mortgage lenders to explore ways in which families with children can remain in homes that are being repossessed.
The Assembly must examine closely proposals about universal credit and stretch parity as far as possible to circumvent some of them, including the proposed sanctions regime.
The proposal for a single, monthly payment to one member of the household is alarming those who have to survive on meagre benefits. The Assembly must find ways to help spread the payments and put in place emergency systems in case the IT system fails.