Northern Ireland news

Stormont urged to relax Universal Credit contingency fund criteria

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon. Picture by Bill Smyth
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT officials have been urged to relax criteria for Universal Credit (UC) claimants to access a £7m hardship fund after it emerged just £17,000 has been used.

The UC contingency fund is aimed at supporting benefits claimants facing extreme financial difficulties.

Applicants must have already claimed a UC advance payment; must not have received a discretionary support living expenses grant within the previous year; and must be in their first or second UC assessment period.

An Audit Office report earlier this month revealed a "low uptake" of the £7m contingency fund, with 115 payments totalling £17,000 between November 2017 and March 2018.

UC, which rolls six benefits into one single payment, has been introduced gradually across Northern Ireland and Britain.

But there have been calls for its suspension amid concerns, including that delays in people receiving their first payment are pushing some claimants into rent arrears and homelessness.

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said the Department for Communities (DfC) criteria for accessing the contingency fund means that claimants "first need to go into debt by taking out the advance payment loan from the department".

"Rather than helping the most vulnerable, this move has placed barriers in their way. Just as the department took it upon itself to restrict access to this vital support, it must now move to widen it so those most in need of help can access it," the North Belfast MLA said.

DfC said the contingency fund criteria was established in November 2017 in the absence of the Stormont executive.

A spokesman said the department "continually monitors the delivery of all the welfare mitigation schemes".

"As the roll-out of Universal Credit continues it is anticipated that there will be increased demand for financial support from the contingency fund," he added.

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