Stormont buys 40 cakes to celebrate Universal Credit
STORMONT civil servants have spent more than £1,000 buying 40 cakes for staff to celebrate the controversial roll-out of the new Universal Credit benefits system.
The cakes, each branded with the Universal Credit logo, were given to staff in 40 locations to mark the end of the new system's introduction in Northern Ireland.
Universal Credit, which rolls six benefits into one single payment, has been introduced gradually across the north and Britain.
But there have been calls for its suspension amid concerns that delays in people receiving their first payment are pushing some claimants into rent arrears and homelessness.
There are also concerns that thousands are worse off under the new scheme because of cuts to disability premiums and single-parent allowances.
Earlier this year, the director general of Universal Credit faced criticism for posting images on Twitter of cakes used in various parts of Britain to mark the system's roll-out.
And now it's emerged Stormont's Department for Communities (DfC) has similarly treated staff in Northern Ireland.
The roll-out of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland began last year and finished earlier this month.
Cakes were provided across departmental branches in the north at the same time to mark the end of this introduction phase.
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon described the move as "tasteless and insensitive".
The North Belfast MLA said: "It is true front line staff are working hard and that should be recognised. It is also true however that Universal Credit, and the minimum five-week wait for your first payment, is causing financial hardship especially in North Belfast, Antrim and Ballymena where it is being rolled out in the mouth of Christmas.
"To brand cakes with the Universal Credit logo is tasteless and insensitive. It shows a careless disregard for the impact it is having on those families forced into debt and in through the doors of food banks."
Defending the purchase of cakes, a DfC spokeswoman said in a statement: "The process of rolling out Universal Credit in Northern Ireland began in September 2017 and completed on December 5 2018.
"This was a significant and challenging implementation effort for the department, involving the recruitment and training of almost 2,000 staff across 40 locations throughout the province.
"To mark the completion of this task, 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.
"The cakes were provided to mark the end of the introduction of Universal Credit, recognising the commitment and hard work of staff in delivering the new service to customers across Northern Ireland."