Pressure on secretary of state Julian Smith to save 'tens of thousands' of poorest citizens from benefits' `cliff edge' before it is too late
THE chairman of a powerful committee of MPs has written to the secretary of state urging him to save "tens of thousands" of Northern Ireland's poorest from the looming benefits `cliff edge' before it is too late.
Nigel Mills, chair of the Joint Committee on Welfare Reform in NI, told Julian Smith there is "strong political consensus" that he must make enacting urgent Westminster legislation "an urgent priority after the general election".
In the new correspondence Mr Mills told the secretary of state there are "clear precedents of the UK government legislating to continue payments which would otherwise be subject to a sunset when there is no assembly, for example, the Renewable Heat Initiative Scheme".
The increasing pressure on Mr Smith is also revealed in a response from Department for Communities permanent secretary Tracey Meharg to the joint committee's official recommendations, which has been made public for the first time.
Ms Meharg told them "the necessity to take action is dependent on the decision of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in respect of bringing forward legislation to extend the mitigation schemes".
The permanent secretary has said the department requires "new legislation which would be subject to `affirmative resolution'."
"In the continued absence of a sitting assembly it will not be possible for such legislation to be made."
The £585 million package of `mitigation' or extra support measures were agreed by the now defunct Stormont executive under the `Fresh Start' deal but will expire in March 2020.
Professor Eileen Evason, who helped design the mitigation measures in 2015, said people must start preparing now for "considerable hardship" and "should contact their MLAs and MPs ASAP".
"I think we need to be honest with the people of Northern Ireland; as things stand everything stops in March 2020.
"The payments that protect people from the bedroom tax will end, the payments that protect children from the benefit cap will end. I am extremely concerned about the impact of all of this."
She added her voice to the call for the secretary of state to "pass the necessary legislation at Westminster".
"There is no other way to avoid this looming crisis."
Kevin Higgins of Advice NI warned the "harshest impacts of welfare reform are disproportionately greater in Northern Ireland than anywhere else".
"We have inadequate, segregated social housing; we have higher rates of disability; we have larger family sizes; all of which places our most vulnerable low income families at grave risk of destitution and homelessness when the payments they rely upon end in March 2020."
Auditor General Kieran Donnelly has warned that after March 2020 "there is a risk that we will see the hardship and increase in the demand for food banks".
Further information on the mitigations 'cliff edge' or social security benefits is available on the independent welfare changes Helpline 0808 802 0020.