Northern Ireland news

Universal Credit roll-out 'celebrated' with £4,000 cakes and cupcakes

A Universal Credit cake for Hove in south east England. Cakes were bought for staff at benefits centres across the north and Britain to celebrate the roll-out of the controversial new system

A STORMONT department spent over £4,000 on cakes and buns to celebrate the roll-out of the controversial new Universal Credit benefits system - four times more than previously thought.

The Irish News reported earlier this month that more than £1,000 had been spent buying 40 cakes for staff.

However, following a Freedom of Information request by the newspaper, the Department for Communities (DfC) revealed it had spent a total of £4,015 on cakes and cupcakes between the start of the benefit roll-out in September 25 2017 and December 5 this year.

A total of 51 cakes and 1,720 cupcakes were bought for staff at 38 benefits centres, including in Omagh, Co Tyrone and Andersonstown in west Belfast.

Universal Credit, which combined six benefits into one single payment, was introduced by the Tories as part of reforms to the welfare system.

However, it has been strongly criticised amid fears that payment delays and cuts to disability and single-parent allowances have left thousands of claimants worse off.

SDLP North Belfast MLA Nichola Mallon has questioned the DfC's decision to buy the cakes. Picture by Bill Smyth

Earlier this year, the director general of Universal Credit was criticised for tweeting photos of cakes given to staff at offices in Britain.

The DfC said earlier this month that following the roll-out of the benefit "a total of £1,125 was spent to purchase 40 cakes which were shared amongst 2,000 staff at team building events across Northern Ireland".

A DfC spokesman said last night that initial figure "was in relation to a question about the costs involved in marking the completion of the Universal Credit roll-out".

Read More: Sinn Féin says Universal Credit cakes are 'offensive'

"The second cost of £4,015 answers your Freedom of Information question, namely: costs to mark the roll-out of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland," he said.

"The figure relates to the costs since roll-out began and includes the costs of marking the end of the roll-out."

SDLP North Belfast MLA Nichola Mallon said many claimants had been left angry and upset by the "completely insensitive" way the department had marked the introduction of the new benefit.

Sinn Féin West Belfast MLA Alex Maskey. File picture by Niall Carson

Ms Mallon said she had contacted the department following publication of the original story.

"At no time did it say it had actually spent £4,000 on cakes and cupcakes," she said.

Sinn Féin West Belfast MLA Alex Maskey said the figure showed the DfC was "out of touch" with claimants.

"This larger figure of £4,000 is even further evidence that the department are living in denial about the pain and suffering placed on people from Universal Credit," he said.

Read More: Universal credit 'has not demonstrated value for money and has caused hardship'

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