17/01/2019

UUP Slam 'Failed' Welfare Reform After Damning Report

A report from the Audit Office has warned that Northern Ireland is not benefiting from welfare reform, prompting the Ulster Unionists to call for the "chaotic" system to be suspended.

The programme of reform included the introduction of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), as well as the roll-out of Universal Credit.

The report found that people seeking the benefit could face financial hardship when it is fully implemented next year, and the demand for food banks could increase significantly.

"Northern Ireland has been insulated from the full impact of welfare reforms by the availability of mitigation schemes and local flexibilities," said Auditor General Kieran Donnelly.

"When the mitigation schemes end, there is a risk that we will see the same hardship and increase in the demand for food banks, as reported elsewhere in the UK."

The report also revealed that annual social security expenditure in Northern Ireland currently totals £7.3 billion, of which £6bn is administered by the Department for Communities.

The sector estimated that the reforms will lead to savings of approximately £3bn for the UK Government.

"To balance this it is imperative that robust cross-departmental strategies are in place to boost the local labour market and strengthen the economy to make work pay," Mr Donnelly added.

UUP welfare spokesperson, Robbie Butler MLA, said the report highlights the failed system and demanded it be permanently scrapped.
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"My Party agreed that the old welfare system was in urgent need for reform, it was unwieldy, far too complicated and most importantly it wasn't properly supporting people into work," the Lagan Valley MLA said.

"Yet everything about the reforms, from the day and hour that they were first announced, has been chaotic and bungled.

"Instead of simplifying the overall benefits system it is evident that the reforms have made it even more difficult with new layers of complexity and added delay. In many cases it has plunged individuals and families into financial hardship, something that is obvious through the increasing reliance on food banks.

"Budget cuts by the Conservative Party have also stripped away most of the financial incentives within universal credit that were originally meant to support people into work.

"The system has also become much less compassionate. As bad as the overall PIP assessments are, it is even more ridiculous that as a result of the arbitrary 6-month life expectancy criterion for the benefit, terminally ill people are having to campaign instead of making the most of the time that they have left with their loves ones.

"The latest report from the Comptroller and Auditor General makes it clear that even though a shocking £136m of the £213m set aside for mitigation payments for the two years between 2016-18 was not even spent, the reality remains that Northern Ireland has been heavily shielded from most of the changes."

In the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, Mr Butler called for the mitigation package to be brought to a "thundering halt" and urged the Secretary of State Karen Bradley to introduce Direct Rule in Northern Ireland.



(JG/CM)

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