Northern Ireland news

DUP block on welfare mitigation legislation ‘disgraceful', says Deirdre Hargey

Deirdre Hargey’s proposals include the permanent extension of top-up mitigation payments for those affected by the so-called bedroom tax
David Young, PA

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey branded an ongoing DUP block on proposed welfare legislation “disgraceful” as she outlined around 40 failed attempts to get it on the Executive agenda.

Deirdre Hargey raised her “sheer frustration” with members of her Assembly scrutiny committee today and urged them to support her calls for the issue to be progressed at Stormont.

Ms Hargey’s proposals include the permanent extension of top-up mitigation payments for those affected by the so-called bedroom tax and the sealing-off of loopholes that currently see more than 1,000 households missing out on certain mitigations.

The minister told the Communities Committee that this month she had to hand back £2 million of funding that was previously allocated for those hit by the loopholes due to the ongoing delay in passing the legislation required to make the payments.

“I’m coming to yourselves this morning just with sheer frustration that this paper is continually being blocked from being placed on the Executive agenda,” she said.

Ms Hargey said if the logjam is not resolved soon, and the matter placed on the agenda for decision, there may not be enough time to pass the legislation before the end of the Assembly mandate.

“That clock is continually ticking day by day, that if we don’t get this legislation through and on to the Assembly floor we’re going to run out of time and we’re facing that impending cliff edge again,” she said.

“So I do think it’s disgraceful, despite me having the paper in well over 18 months ago, the money’s in place, the legislation is ready, that that has still not reached the Executive agenda for decision.

“People may now have different opinions or views in terms of the paper that I’ve presented but democracy should take place and that should be decided at the Executive table.”

The Executive agenda is jointly agreed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Ms Hargey said she has made “over 39 requests” for her paper on the proposals to be placed on the agenda.

While the DUP supports the extension of the welfare mitigation measures for three years, the party is unhappy that the minister’s proposed legislation does not include an end date for the measures.

DUP committee member Paul Frew accused Ms Hargey of “playing politics” with the issue and failing to produce a Bill built on “fiscal wisdom”.

He said mitigations are currently needed, but highlighted that Northern Ireland is breaking parity with the welfare system in other parts of the UK and that “shouldn’t be trodden on lightly”.

Mr Frew said it would be more prudent to have a three-year end date so the mitigations can be reviewed again at a time when another Executive would be in place.

“Why would you not pursue a Bill that had a three-year period contained within it, which then could be enacted on and built upon by a new minister, depending on the fiscal arrangements and environment at that time?” he asked the minister.

Ms Hargey replied: “I do have fiscal wisdom, I just don’t agree with Tory ideology and I think that’s an important point.

“We have broken parity with Britain on this issue and I think that it’s good we’ve broken parity.”

In 2015, Stormont ministers committed to a £500 million package of mitigations to supplement the benefits of claimants losing out as a consequence of UK Government welfare reforms.

The measures were extended in March 2020, at a cost of £23 million per year, after Stormont parties committed to the move in the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored powersharing.

The bedroom tax, known as the spare room subsidy, results in a reduction in housing benefit for claimants who have one or more spare rooms in their social homes.

As well as making the bedroom tax mitigation permanent, Ms Hargey also wants to close loopholes that see claimants losing mitigation payments when they move to a similarly sized home and also the rule that limits benefits cap top-ups to those who were claimants in 2016.

It has been estimated that around 1,200 households miss out on payments as a result of those loopholes.

The minister has secured funds to cover the cost of closing the loopholes but cannot release the money until her proposals are signed off by the Executive, enabling her to bring the legislation through the Assembly.

At the end of Ms Hargey’s appearance at the committee, members agreed to write to the Executive asking for the item to be put on the agenda for a decision.

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