The welfare reform cliff edge looming for Northern Ireland

By Bernadette Meaden
January 5, 2020

Whilst much of Great Britain has spent the past few years worrying about a Brexit cliff edge, many people in Northern Ireland have been worrying about another looming cliff edge, which will have a direct and dramatic impact on their daily lives.

When the Welfare Reform Act 2012 was passed in Westminster, political opposition prevented the equivalent legislation being enacted in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, an agreement was reached which meant that the welfare reform legislation was introduced in 2016, but with a programme of mitigation, which meant that people were to a large extent compensated for the financial losses they would otherwise have suffered. In Northern Ireland, people affected by the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the two child limit, the loss of Disability Living Allowance etc. received supplementary payments, with the result that, as Advice Northern Ireland said, ”welfare reform has generated less controversy and hardship here than elsewhere.”

However, the mitigation package is due to stop at the end of March 2020, and this has been dubbed a social security cliff edge, when the people of Northern Ireland will suddenly feel the full force of welfare reform.

In a paper published in June 2019, Professor Eileen Evason, Chair of the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group, and Kevin Higgins of Advice NI, explained how Northern Ireland’s history and particular circumstances make it even more vulnerable to the cruel impacts of welfare reform. Compared to Great Britain, it has above average levels of poverty, due to higher unemployment and lower wages, and higher levels of disability as a result of past conflict. It also has larger families, and particular problems with segregated social housing. All this means that falling off a welfare cliff edge could be disastrous. And even some Conservatives agree.

In September 2019, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee conducted a joint inquiry into the issue. The inquiry’s report urged the government to extend the mitigation package. Nigel Mills MP, the Conservative who chaired the joint inquiry said: “Welfare claimants in Northern Ireland cannot be left to shoulder the costs of inadequate social housing stock and the devastating impact left behind by the Troubles. Thousands of claimants are relying upon the social security mitigation package – it cannot be allowed to suddenly stop because the corridors and benches of Stormont lie empty.

“Our joint report today calls for the Secretary of State to recognise the gravity of this situation, and to urgently introduce legislation to Westminster to extend the mitigation package beyond March 2020. If this does not happen, thousands of households in Northern Ireland will see their monthly income fall sharply with some losing hundreds of pounds per month. There is a clear consensus among the main political parties in Northern Ireland that the package can continue, and the Government have taken important Northern Ireland legislation through Westminster in the past two years. They should take the same approach to this vital issue of social security.”

In November 2019, with no decision from government, Mr Mills wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland asking him again to take action, saying it should be "an urgent priority" after the general election.

Days before the general election,  Kevin Higgins of Advice NI said Northern Ireland is “on the brink of a welfare mitigations disaster”, with “our most vulnerable low-income families at grave risk of destitution and homelessness when the payments they rely on end in March.”

In a submission to the joint inquiry, the Irish Church Leaders Group gave a comprehensive critique of welfare reform. On the two child limit they said: “it is not morally or ethically justifiable to deprive a child of support in this way”, and stated that the policy “undermines the fundamental human rights of any child, including under Articles 2, 3, 26 and 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and discriminates against him or her on the basis of the number of siblings that he or she may have”. 

It is to be hoped that the government steps up and prevents the poorest people in Northern Ireland falling off this social security cliff edge in the Spring. But whilst special circumstances mean welfare reforms may have a particular impact in Northern Ireland, their impact in the rest of the UK is also dire, as we can see in our communities. And policies that are morally and ethically wrong, as all policies which knowingly increase hardship must surely be, are equally wrong, wherever they are implemented.

Despite the knighthood for Iain Duncan Smith, justice demands that his welfare reforms are not just mitigated, but completely overhauled and wherever possible, scrapped. We now have more than enough evidence of the harm they have caused and are continuing to cause. We need to save Northern Ireland from the looming cliff edge, but we also need to rescue the rest of the UK from these policies which needlessly cause misery and hardship.

And if Northern Ireland is allowed to fall off the cliff edge, and is hit by the full cruelty of Iain Duncan Smith’s policies, the disastrous effects will become clear quite quickly. If that happens, how will the supporters of these disastrous policies explain it away this time? 


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 


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