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Warning on welfare reform hardship must be taken seriously

The Conservative Party's overhaul of the benefits system in the UK was introduced during the austerity period and was aimed at reducing welfare spending.

A range of policies was subjected to wholesale change, including disability benefits, tax credits and housing support.

It was promoted in part as a way of 'making work pay', but the reality has been very different.

The roll-out of universal credit has seen an upsurge in the use of food banks across Britain, a shameful indictment of a government that has failed to look after some of the most vulnerable in society.

Unfortunately, something that was once almost unthinkable has become a reality in many parts of Britain.

The Trussell Trust charity reported a 17 per cent average increase in demand for food banks in areas where universal credit benefit had been brought in.

Mitigation measures agreed by the last Stormont executive have ensured that Northern Ireland has been shielded from the full impact of welfare reform.

However, the Northern Ireland Audit Office has issued a stark warning that time is running out on those measures and this would have severe implications for many people.

According to 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 reported elsewhere in the UK.''

He said the Department for Communities needs to focus on what actions need to be taken to address 'this very real risk.'

This is a warning from an authoritative body that needs to be taken seriously.

The mitigation schemes, part of the Fresh Start agreement and designed to top up reductions in benefit payments, are due to end in March 2020, just over a year from now.

The Housing Executive has previously said that 33,000 benefit claimants could lose out once the special exemptions end.

Many of those who will be hard hit by the end of mitigation will be working families. These are people doing low paid jobs, who work hard, perhaps with uncertain shifts or unsociable hours. They are just about getting by and are deeply worried by even the smallest reduction in their household income.

We have already seen the alarming impact of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), people with severe medical conditions left distraught by often difficult to understand assessments.

The thought that we could see further hardship, people suffering food poverty or fearing they may have to move from their homes, should be a wake-up call to our politicians.

The clock is running down which means we need action now on extending the package of mitigation measures.

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