The Welfare Reform Bill was passed in the UK in 2012, but only came into being in Northern Ireland at the end of 2015: Lucy Begbie investigates its impact on Northern Ireland.
In 2012 the UK parliament passed its controversial Welfare Reform Act to oversee a radical overhaul of the benefit system in order to encourage more people to work or ‘make work pay’, and to cut government costs.
As a result of the recession, and wages being frozen, work was becoming an increasingly less attractive proposition for those who would actually be better off, or no worse off, by living on benefits.
It was this group, and the more historic groups of the unemployed, the government was keen to target. In this it had the full support of those members of the public who egged on by certain sectors of the press viewed claimants as ‘lazy’, ‘scroungers’, ‘living off the tax payer.’
The demographic of the claimant is of course less straightforward than that over-simplification. It includes the historic claimant who comes from a family where several generations have never known what it is to work – usually due to poor levels of literacy and numeracy and little expectation of a working life. To break out of such a vicious circle requires high levels of support and re-education.
It may be that the claimant grew up in an environment where domestic abuse was rife. Where violence, alcoholism and addictions have impacted the family greatly, not least affecting the claimant’s mental health and levels of confidence and self-esteem, severely affecting their ability to work, or to go about finding work.
Others receiving benefits include the disabled, the sick, the lone parent, the elderly, or families where only one parent is working because the other parent is looking after young children. These groups will have very real restrictions placed on them by their set of circumstances, and will be highly dependent on the benefits they receive.
In Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) the roll out of the Universal Credit system – one benefit replacing all – began in 2012. As a result, there have been many reports in the press, and via community and charitable organisations, of increased hardship for the unemployed or low income families. Increased use of food banks is one example repeatedly cited.
In Northern Ireland the welfare reform act was only passed at the end of 2015. The lead up to this was littered with controversy and resistance to proposals agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. Across the parties there was the understanding that savings had to be made but a concern by Sinn Fein and the SDLP that certain communities and vulnerable groups might be hit harder than others.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone says:
“The big concern, the key question is, what motivated welfare reform? Extortionate levels of money were handed out to the banks, and yet some of the people now paying out are the most vulnerable.
“It’s easy to kick a person when they are down – they can’t fight back. It does gall me.
“Everyone wants to make sure people can work, if work is available, and people are fit to work.
“I don’t buy it that benefits are there for scroungers, the majority of people we deal with are good people fallen on bad times.
With the eventual threat of the collapse of the assembly, and a return to direct rule, talks were renewed. The Fresh Start Agreement was drawn up in November 2015, with a commitment to welfare and tax credit reform, along with public sector reform, and the ending of paramilitarism.
DUP MLA Lord Morrow says:
“DUP MPs voted against the most punitive aspects of welfare reform at Westminster, but once welfare reform was passed at Parliament it was inevitable that it would have to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“The refusal by some parties to accept reality meant that penalties were imposed from Westminster which took vital funds away from public services in Northern Ireland. The DUP DSD Minister did negotiate a package which negated many of the worst effects and ensured that Northern Ireland received a more generous welfare deal than any other region of the UK.
“We recognise that welfare reform will have an impact in Northern Ireland, but the impact on vulnerable people would have been much greater if the Executive had continued to pay the penalties imposed by Westminster for failing to introduce changes.”
Northern Ireland is unique from other parts of the UK and this will impact on the introduction of welfare reform. This was recognised in the drawing up of the Fresh Start Agreement and explains why there are differences in parts of Northern Ireland’s welfare reform, and the timeline to deliver it, and the ‘top ups’ available over the first four years.
Professor Eileen Evason, Lead, Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group says:
“People in Northern Ireland don’t understand how much hardship welfare reform has caused in Great Britain. Northern Ireland now has a unique package of measures in place to prevent much of the difficulty experienced in Great Britain.
“Clearly we cannot ensure nobody is worse off, but we have got a breathing space, and we are putting in a number of measures which will help greatly.
“For example families with children will not be subject to the benefit cap. The bedroom tax will not apply to Northern Ireland and we will have measures in place to ensure sanctions don’t cause hardship, and to help people transfer from DLA to PIP.”
There is an understanding that thirty years of troubles has had a serious impact on the population’s mental health that is related to the take up of benefits – especially in regard to Disability Living Allowance – thus placing greater strain on the welfare system.
Samantha Boswell who is Advice 4 Health coordinator at Citizen Advice Causeway, works in tandem with health professionals who refer clients. The people she advises include those with learning difficulties, physical disabilities, mental health problems, the elderly, and families with young children.
“The processes don’t work well for people with mental health problems. Since welfare reform was mentioned our clients have been distressed. The important thing is that the client has third party support.”
There has been particularly criticism in Great Britain of the targeting of the disabled, who are now subjected to regular interviews and examinations to see if they are fit for work. The press carried a number of stories about how pressures on those whose disability benefit had been reduced, had led to suicide in some cases.
Personal Independence Payment known as PIP now replaces Disability Living Allowance and first took effect in Northern Ireland in June this year. Samantha Boswell says that PIP has taken on some of the feedback given by professionals over the years.
She thinks the processing of the benefit has some positive elements which means claims could be processed faster, but she would like to see more direct consultation with medical professionals at the outset of applications. This would take the pressure off clients she says.
“Any change is scary for people. Letters have gone out in advance of the changes and this has alarmed people, especially those with mental health problems. People panic. We’ve had lots of people ringing up. A very high percentage of clients coming through the door will have a query connected to welfare reform.”
Professor Eileen Evason believes the whole welfare package in Great Britain was unnecessary. She says since 2010 the coalition government used the economic crisis as a cover to cut the benefit system, and that Northern Ireland then had to try and protect its own people.
Part of Northern Ireland’s special package is the eight million pounds invested in the advice sector to help mitigate the effects of the welfare reforms. There will also be a discussion in 2018 to decide which bits of the programme the Executive wants to keep. Only time will tell the impact on the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland’s communities.
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