The Welfare Reform Bill 2012 presents the Northern Ireland Assembly with one of its greatest challenges so far, a University of Ulster social policy lecturer has said.
In an address to MLAs as part of the Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series at Stormont yesterday, Derry-based Goretti Horgan said that while the stated objectives of the Bill – to simplify benefits and make work play – are to be welcomed, there is growing concern that the proposed changes do not take account of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and the level of child poverty here.
Ms Horgan, who was representing the Institute for Research in Social Sciences at Ulster, said the Bill will mean the biggest shake-up of social security benefits for decades.
The proposed changes will impact on thousands across Northern Ireland and affect all benefits, including disability living allowance, housing benefit in-work benefits and unemployment benefits.
She said the legislation - which has already passed in England and Wales - has the potential to lift 10,000 children out of poverty if enough well-paid employment is made available, but without such jobs, it may actually have the oppositeeffect of deepening child poverty in Northern Ireland.
The Ulster academic noted Social Security is a devolved issue and argued the principle of parity is not absolute. Therefore, MLAs have scope to shape the Bill and protect the most vulnerable.
“Policy variations that ameliorate some of the worst impacts of the Welfare Reform Bill’s proposals are possible – and necessary – within the bounds of parity,” she said.
Ms Horgan continued: “This gives the Assembly some room to shape the Bill to take account of Northern Ireland’s high rates of mental ill-health, low waged jobs and persistent child poverty as well as its poor provision of childcare andother public services such as transport which are necessary for a vibrant economy and labour market.”
Northern Ireland is the UK region with the highest percentage of households with children (34%), compared to a UK average of 28%. As well as having more families with children, the region also has more children within families and a higher proportion of larger families (with four or more children). NI rates of persistent child poverty are more than twice that in Scotland, England and Wales.
Ms Horgan said that families with children in Northern Ireland had already hadtheir income badly affected by welfare reforms introduced since 2010.
“Those families face a further drop in living standards over the coming three years and the Assembly needs to move to protect families in any way it can.”
She said there are a range of potentially cost-neutral measures the Assembly could implement.
“Any measures with cost implications would need to be fully costed and the cost compared with the likely costs of dealing with homelessness and other social problems. Such a cost-benefits analysis would help MLAs to decide where it would be cheaper in the long term not to include some provisions in the Bill.
“For example, the Assembly could decide not to implement the under occupancy rule until our social housing stock has sufficient one and two bedroomed homes to meet needs.”
Another option she said would be to follow the lead of the Scottish Executive and for the NI Executive to work with mortgage lenders to find ways in which families with children can remain in homes that being repossessed.
Ms Horgan said: “Given the state of the housing market, it makes little sense to evict families from such homes: as well as breaching children’s rights, it results only in another vacant home and homeless family.
She concluded: “The Assembly faces perhaps its greatest challenge to date – to demonstrate that devolution really does make a difference to the policies that affect almost every person in Northern Ireland.
“If it is to show the relevance of local policy makers to local lives and living conditions, then it must do everything in its power to ensure that it protects the most vulnerable and does nothing that will push more of our children into poverty or, worse, into severe poverty. That means that it must take every opportunity to tailor the Welfare Reform Bill and the regulations that willaccompany the legislation to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”