Beyond Confidence and Supply: Northern Ireland and Welfare Reform

05 June 2019 - by Erin Delaney

In the week that Chancellor Philip Hammond rejected the UN report that found the government’s austerity programme had increased poverty; we look at the Department for Communities and the issue of welfare reform in Northern Ireland.

Following the allocation of Northern Ireland’s third budget since the collapse of the Executive in 2017, the Northern Ireland Affairs and Work and Pensions Committees have announced a joint inquiry into welfare policy in Northern Ireland.

This inquiry is timely.

In January 2019 the Department for Communities announced that it would not begin the managed migration phase of the roll out of Universal Credit until 2020 as opposed to July 2019 as originally planned.

This means that the welfare mitigation package is due to cease just as Universal Credit is rolled out – a combination of events that will leave many existing vulnerable people and families even worse off.  

Faced with this prospect, over 60 organisations (and counting) have come together under the #CliffEdge banner, to highlight the impact of the end of mitigations. This was reflected in a  special two-day report on Universal Credit and welfare mitigations covered in the Belfast News Letter just last week.

The first oral evidence session of the inquiry is taking place on 10 June, with 5 key witnesses, including members of the #CliffEdge coalition, along with Professor Eileen Evason, Chair of the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group, set to appear.

With the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee stepping into the spotlight as it scrutinises welfare reform, it will be interesting to see how it will handle the Northern Ireland Audit Office report released in January this year that highlighted a substantial underspend within welfare reform, with £136 million of the funding available in the first two years going unspent.

The Committee has provided a level of scrutiny in the absence of an Executive with previous inquires and reviews of Brexit, energy policy and health funding.

What is particularly interesting about this inquiry are the implications for the Government’s domestic agenda. The current administration has come under pressure on welfare reform issues, evidenced by Amber Rudd’s softening of language and the injection of £3.1 billion to help people affected by the transition to Universal Credit.

So, Northern Ireland’s influence on UK-wide domestic policy is beyond the parameters of the DUP Conservative Party Confidence and Supply Agreement.