The Department for Communities (DfC) celebrating the roll-out of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland with cakes has been met with anger. The social security payment, supposedly intended to simplify the benefits system, has been a disaster. Requiring recipients to wait up to six weeks for their first payment has led to many falling behind on bills, pushing up their debt and in some cases leading to homelessness.
By design or incompetence, the procedure for applying for the benefit is hard to understand, with one in five applications refused simply because it wasn’t completed correctly. Online support is difficult to access for those most in need. Even when an application is successful, payments are often inadequate to meet basic living costs, the use of food banks soaring as a result. Delays in payments are common, charities noting that these delays have forced some women into prostitution.
Tory reactions to the failures of the scheme have been enraging or laughable: from Iain Duncan Smith grinning as he donates to the food banks he made people reliant on; to Heidi Allen blasting welfare reform when she has consistently voted for reducing benefits. This hypocrisy goes further than the Tories, however.
Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey condemned DfC for celebrating the roll-out of Universal Credit after all the hardship it has caused, neglecting to mention it was his party, along with the DUP and Alliance, who voted to give Westminster the power to legislate for welfare reform in Northern Ireland. Their justification for doing so was that the alternative was the collapse of the Assembly. After two years with no Executive, this no longer seems to be a pressing concern for the politicians. While both the main parties have outlined supposed ‘red lines’ for a return to Stormont, commitment to battle welfare reform is notably not among them.
Northern Ireland has also seen Personal Independence Payment (PIP) gradually replacing DLA. In 2017, BBC Spotlight found 35% of those transferring from DLA to PIP have had their benefits stopped during the assessment. Others have had benefits lowered or lost their mobility cars. These assessments (carried out by Capita on behalf of DfC) have been criticised as using unfair definitions of conditions, relying on poorly trained assessors and having a lack of respect or empathy.
Succumbing to public outcry, Amber Rudd suspended a vote on moving another three million benefit recipients to Universal Credit and has dispensed with the controversial two-child limit. But the outcry must not stop there. Communities and unions must step up the pressure and demand investment in high-quality jobs and guaranteed, liveable benefits for all those out of or unable to work.
by Kieran Coghlan