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Housing Rights briefs All Party Group on Welfare Reform concerns

Earlier this week, the last All Party Group on Housing before the summer break focused on the housing specific impacts of Welfare Reform in Northern Ireland and included a briefing from Housing Rights.

Housing Rights’ policy team highlighted three key areas of concern and included a focus on the situation post 2020 when the current scheme of mitigation payments are due to expire.

Key areas of concern

1. The most recent waves of Welfare Reform are compounding the difficulties faced by those on low incomes

We highlighted the difficulties faced across the housing market, even prior to the most recent wave of welfare changes. The introduction of Universal Credit which began its rollout last year and which followed the introduction of the Benefit Cap in 2016 and the Social Sector Size Criteria in 2017, are only the latest in a programme of welfare changes which impact on housing.

Housing Rights focused particularly on the already difficult situation facing private renters who have had support with housing costs reduced progressively since the introduction of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) system in 2008. LHA rates were further reduced in 2011 to cover only the bottom third of the market. Other changes include the introduction of the shared accommodation rate for under 35s and freezing of the rates in 2016 for 4 years.

Support for low income owner occupiers has also been reduced, particularly with the changes to Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI). The waiting time to access SMI was increased in 2016 from 13 to 39 weeks and in April 2018 the benefit changed to an interest bearing loan.

2. Deficiencies in the mitigation payments set up to address the shortfall left by the introduction of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap.

While we welcome the provision of support for people impacted by the Social Sector Size Criteria and the Benefit Cap, the weaknesses in the mitigation payments were discussed. Members of the All Party Group heard case examples to illustrate deficiencies in the mitigation arrangements which demonstrate that the supplementary payments are temporary and neither absolute or comprehensive.

3. The design of Universal Credit will remove or weaken previously existing safety nets.

Whilst the roll out of Universal Credit is ongoing and there is naturally a bedding in period,  Housing Rights is concerned that ‘safety nets’ which existed under Housing Benefit to assist people will no longer exist, or exist only in a reduced format, under the new Universal Credit scheme. Loss of the “overlapping”, “13 week income shock protection” and “death protection” provisions were considered.

Beyond 2020

A key focus of Housing Rights’ presentation was on the need for an urgent review of the regulations and policy which govern the use of Discretionary Housing Payments in Northern Ireland.

The regulations which govern the use of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) in NI are tightly written and only permit the use of DHPs in the private rented sector and in limited circumstances in the social rented sector. In contrast, elsewhere in the UK, DHPs are more generously applied. This is significant since the DHP budget in NI is allocated in accordance with DHP budget for local authorities in GB.

When the mitigation payments expire in 2020, Northern Ireland will be significantly worse off than other areas in the UK unless alternative mechanisms are created which provide support to those who are faced with a shortfall between their benefit and rent.

Housing Rights has recommended that extended use of the DHP scheme is considered for this purpose. This would require amendment of these regulations and review of the policies in this area. Consideration should also be given to the increased promotion of DHPs, particularly for those living in the private rented sector in the meantime.

Unique Opportunity

Finally, Housing Rights identified that Northern Ireland has a unique opportunity to ensure that social security and housing policy work together to ensure the best outcomes for people.  In England the Department for Work and Pensions makes decisions regarding social security, whilst the Department for Communities and Local Government guides housing policy. In Northern Ireland both functions reside within the Department for Communities.

The All Party Group has agreed to invite the Permanent Secretary from the Department for Communities to attend a future meeting of the All Party Group to discuss how his Department are ensuring greater coordination between social security and housing policy in the context of welfare reform.

Author

Sarah Corrigan