The planned end of welfare mitigations in March 2020 would force social housing tenants into further hardship, a housing expert has warned.
Patrick Thompson, deputy chief executive of the National Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA), was commenting in light of today’s publication of the NI Audit Office report on welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.
Mr Thompson said that NIFHA supports Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly’s finding that “there is a risk that we will see the same hardship and increase in the demand for foodbanks reported elsewhere in the UK” and his call for action to address the risk.
“Today the NI Audit Office releases its report on Welfare Reforms in Northern Ireland. NIFHA welcomes the report at a time when housing associations are seeing in much greater detail the negative effects of the move to Universal Credit on their tenants despite the safety net of the welfare mitigation payments that were introduced to insulate benefit claimants from the full impact of welfare reform,” Mr Thompson stated.
He continued, “Rent arrears are a persistent issue for tenants and landlords alike and it seems likely that the safety net of the mitigations could end as planned in March 2020. The Housing Executive has warned that the end of mitigations could make matters worse for social housing tenants, saddling them with the challenge of finding an extra £21 million (c. £5.8 million of which applies to housing association tenants) to cover their resulting rent shortfall, due to the ‘bedroom tax’ alone.”
The publication today of the NIAO report reinforces the findings of the recent paper ‘Mitigations on a Cliff Edge’, co-produced by Advice NI, Housing Rights and Law Centre (NI). This, Mr Thompson noted, “offers us a “timely opportunity to take stock of the problems we have yet to face.”
NEED FOR MORE SUITABLE SOCIAL HOUSING STOCK
He said that the nature of existing housing stock is not particularly suitable for applying a “bedroom tax” in relation to under occupancy.
“We now have a very real and looming problem of the current housing stock profile not being able to assist the thousands of social tenants who may be under occupying larger homes, as there aren’t enough smaller homes available for them to move to.
“With no functioning NI Assembly, there are no signs that there are plans to encourage the construction of more suitably sized properties to offset the ending of the mitigations. And, if there were, it is unlikely that there would be sufficient numbers built within a suitable timeframe to enable tenants to avoid bedroom tax.
“Without the correct stock, is the government not forcing tenants into further hardship? How much power will our civil servants have to move the mitigations agenda forward?” Mr Thompson asked.
DELAY AN ‘ENCOURAGING SIGN’
Given the recognised issues with the roll out of Universal Credit, NIFHA is encouraged by the Department for Communities’ (DfC) announcement that “to ensure Northern Ireland has the opportunity to consider learning from the recently announced managed migration pilot in Great Britain”, DfC will not now commence managed migration in July 2019. Instead, it will defer the beginning of that phase until 2020 and aim to complete by the end of 2023.
This delay, Mr Thompson emphasised, should be used to address important issues with Universal Credit (UC) before the migration begins.
UNIVERSAL CREDIT CHANGES NEEDED
He said: “Despite some of the unique flexibilities that the DfC has introduced here, there are still a number of critical issues with UC that we and our members desire to see addressed before managed migration is started in Northern Ireland.
“NIFHA is meeting this week with the three other housing federations in Great Britain and will be discussing the Four Fed’s joint ‘5 Asks’ UC campaign to ensure that we are reflecting accurately the experiences of our local members.
“We will continue to work hard to drive changes in the UC process to end endemic issues such as the need for increased data sharing with housing associations on UC claimants through the restoration of implicit consent as well as greater transparency on direct payments to landlords though simultaneous payments to housing associations and claimants,” Mr Thompson concluded.