Judith Cochrane MLA said: “The Alliance Party knows that the place to make significant changes to the Bill was at Westminster. Although that leaves us in a difficult situation, we need to acknowledge that our duty now is to progress with the Bill and make changes that are in our power at Consideration Stage. Delaying the process is not the answer, and the costs of delay are considerable, including, as the Minister highlighted, the risk that Northern Ireland residents who deliver social security services on a UK-wide basis could lose their jobs. Although I would have liked the Bill to come forward much sooner to allow us more time, I see no reason why we should delay it and why we cannot seek to tackle the issues in Sinn Féin’s amendment through continued negotiations with the UK Government over the coming weeks, as well as making amendments to the Bill through the Committee Stage.
“Although the social security system is devolved to the Assembly, it is in the interests of our constituents to follow parity with the rest of the UK. We do not have the tax base to sustain our own local system or to pay for deviations from what happens in the rest of the UK. Parity, therefore, works in our favour, in that it ensures a level of provision that we could not otherwise afford. The Alliance Party does not believe that it is feasible for us to breach parity for benefits and qualifying thresholds, but we can work to push administrative and operational matters to fit with local circumstances. That is where our focus now needs to be. We should also ensure that the Executive are prioritising other factors that can mitigate some of the changes, including progressing affordable childcare and creating jobs.
“When talking about our welfare system, I think that there is often a myth that people are divided into two distinct groups: hard-working taxpayers and those who are on benefits. A person may fall into either or both of those categories at some point in their life. Hard-working taxpayers can become seriously ill or lose their job or home, especially in the current economic climate, so we need to ensure that we have a system that provides support when someone needs it most.
“It seems that all parties agree that we want to push the boundaries of parity as much as possible for our constituents, but we need to be realistic. It would be irresponsible for us as elected representatives to get people’s hopes up that we can make vast changes to the Bill’s operation here, given that the real place to debate and make significant changes to it was Westminster. Indeed, my colleague Naomi Long MP consistently voted against the Government’s proposals for welfare reform at every stage in Westminster, and she supported a number of amendments that the House of Lords proposed that aimed to lessen the worst effects of the Act.
“She supported amendments that would extend contributory ESA to 24 months, exempt cancer patients from the new rules and reject the Government’s moves to stop young disabled people who have never worked from receiving contributory ESA. Unfortunately, the Government defeated those amendments. She also objected to the Government’s confusing proposals on cuts to child benefit and to a cap on benefits. She voted against the Bill at its Second and Third Readings in Parliament.
“There are countless provisions in the Bill, and I will focus on a few specific points where I think that we could approach things differently in Northern Ireland while still working within the realms of parity. A completely different IT system is out of the question, for example, but making more frequent or split payments of universal credit to those who want it should be possible. Choice is key, and we need to appreciate that not everyone is comfortable with budgeting on a monthly basis. Indeed, many who work in retail or construction are paid fortnightly. On the other hand, there are those who have been used to receiving a monthly salary but who have since lost their job and struggle to manage their budget when various payments come in at different times. It may not be completely clear what their total monthly income is. I, therefore, welcome that the Minister is seeking confirmation that the IT system can meet that purpose so that choice can be offered.
“Another issue that I have previously spoken on is the underoccupation penalty. Although we will not be able to ignore the penalties, we need to recognise that there are not nearly enough one bedroom properties in Northern Ireland to cope with demand. So, we need to consider that the penalty will affect those who were allocated a property with more bedrooms than they require, often through no fault or choice of their own. Any social housing tenants who are deemed to be underoccupying their home by one bedroom stand to lose 14% of their housing benefit entitlement, with those underoccupying by two or more bedrooms losing 25% of that benefit. I understand that the Housing Executive and housing associations are trying to pre-empt those changes coming into force and have been taking steps to identify those tenants who will be affected. However, we need to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to prevent mass upheaval when those changes come in. We do not want to end up with more repossessions, rent arrears or people presenting as homeless.
“I welcome the Minister’s comments on housing stock, and I ask that he ensures that his Department will prioritise the review of all social housing stock and take a strategic and holistic approach to the construction of future housing. Of course, we in Northern Ireland have the added difficulty of having deeply segregated housing pockets. Often, the options for people moving house are even more complex in comparison with those for people in Great Britain. It will come as no surprise to Members to hear that I believe that shared housing could be an integral concept in the housing strategy and could help to alleviate some of the proposed changes in the Welfare Reform Bill.
“We should also be cognisant of the fact that applications for universal credit and PIP will predominantly need to be made online and that the community and voluntary sector will, therefore, have a more important role than ever to play. We must ensure that enough fully trained staff are placed in jobs and benefits offices across Northern Ireland to assist claimants with filling in forms both in person and through helplines. I am sure that the Minister is well aware that, by investing in the community and voluntary sector, we gain value for money in front line advice services, which inevitably leads to financial savings for government. To curb the effects of the changes to our social security system, we should be investing in and using the advice sector to its full capacity.
“Lessons also need to be learned from the staggering employment and support allowance appeal rates, with around 38% of appeals decided in favour of claimants. The work capability assessment carried out in the UK by Atos has caused significant concern. We need to ensure that the personal independence payment medical assessments are better thought out and that medical evidence will take precedence when decisions are made.
“Another issue of concern is that over 133,000 people in Northern Ireland have a direct payment of housing benefit set up with their landlord, which ensures that their accommodation is never in jeopardy and helps to reduce the risk of personal debt. That system not only protects tenants but gives financial security to social landlords, enabling them to secure private investment at highly competitive rates, thereby maximising their capacity to deliver much-needed affordable homes to the taxpayer. Landlords who receive direct payments are, in turn, able to keep down the cost of rent. That is one feature that I would be extremely keen to retain, perhaps by having an opt-out scheme.
“Welfare reform should not be about reducing spend year on year. It should be about creating a welfare system that protects and provides for those who need it most. The Bill does not make easy reading for any of us who deal daily with constituents in real need. However, our duty to them is to seek to make amendments at Committee Stage in the coming weeks.”