Northern Ireland news

Block on welfare legislation could force families from their homes, Deirdre Hargey says

While the DUP supports the extension of the welfare mitigation measures for three years, the party is unhappy that the proposed legislation does not include an end date for the measures
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

The Communities Minister has warned that a DUP block on proposed welfare legislation could see working class families being forced from their homes.

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

During ministerial question time at Stormont on Monday, the Sinn Féin minister again hit out at the DUP for blocking her latest attempt to get the legislation considered by the Executive.

She said: “I was at committee a few weeks ago. At that point I said I had made 39 attempts to get the legislation on to the Executive to be agreed and to be progressed. It is now up to 40 attempts.

“I tried again to get it onto the Executive committee two weeks ago to no avail. If it is not approved within the Executive office then it cannot be discussed.

“The frustrating thing for me is that I’ve tried 40 times to get this put on the table for a decision. I have the legislation ready, I have the money in place. Some of the money had to be returned because it couldn’t be spent.

“This legislation is about binning the bedroom tax, it is about closing the loopholes for those families that are falling through the net at the moment.

“I am going to call out that it is the DUP who continue to block this being placed on the Executive agenda. Time is running out in terms of Assembly sitting days that we have left. This is my frustration, that we will come to a cliff-edge.”

The Executive agenda is jointly agreed by the first minister and deputy first minister.

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

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 cause claimants to lose mitigation payments when they move to a similarly sized home and also the rule that limits benefits cap top-ups to people who were claimants in 2016.

An estimated 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.

Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd asked: “We hear much from the opposite benches about the harm that the (Northern Ireland) protocol is alleged to be doing to working class unionist communities.

“Would the minister agree with me that the bedroom tax is doing much more harm than the protocol ever will?”

Ms Hargey said: “This is having a huge financial impact. We can see the impact of this Tory policy in England where families are being forced to leave the home that they have lived in with their children for years. They are being forced to move hundreds of miles away.

“We know our housing make-up here cannot meet the need if this legislation is not progressed; it will force families out on to the street, it will force them having to move miles away.

“It would force them to be homeless because we don’t have the housing composition to meet the need. This will affect working class families, low-income families, particularly children.”

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