Concern at the likely impact of proposed reforms topped the agenda at yesterday’s Chartered Institute of Housing conference in Belfast.
Will Haire, permanent secretary at the Department for Social Development, which is charged with implementing the Conservative-led government’s assault on claimants in Northern Ireland, received a frosty reception when he insisted that slashing benefits will remove “disincentives to work” and result in thousands of people moving into employment, regardless of the province’s ongoing economic crisis.
It being a housing conference, changes to housing benefit took centre stage, with the permanent secretary admitting:
- 38,000 households will lose money because of the capping of payments
- 25,000 will lose out because of the introduction of penalties for under occupancy
- 5,000 people aged 25 to 34 will lose support to live in their own home
Other speakers argued that benefit cuts combined with a shift to paying housing benefit to claimants instead of directly to landowners – which may not be extended to Northern Ireland – will result in more people falling into debt, which is associated with higher levels of crime and domestic violence, and put housing associations’ key income stream at risk.
Policymakers were also warned that it is unfair to introduce penalties for under occupancy when previous policy has encouraged it, many tenants may need a spare bedroom for a carer, fostering or other reasons and when many will experience difficulty finding a smaller property free in their own area. Where movement does happen on a large scale, community cohesion will be affected and schools will experience sudden changes in demand.
A speaker from Bron Afon, in Wales, which is hosting a demonstration project of the direct payment scheme revealed that the Government is not even prepared to learn the lessons from early experiments, but will proceed with the roll-out of the policy before results are in.
Intervention is needed to help those who will be affected by the changes. Improving the energy efficiency of housing beyond the current pledge for double glazing in all Housing Executive properties will bring down heating bills and leave more money to fill the widening gap between housing benefit levels and actual rents.
This work – and other public sector procurement – must be targeted at local businesses to provide the maximum number of jobs so that people do have a chance of finding work.
In the longer term, Ministers must begin to consider whether it is possible for Northern Ireland to take a more distinctive approach to its social security provision in the future.
The parity principle is often cited as a reason for not doing so, but anyone who has read the Northern Ireland Act can see that the Minister here is only required to consult with his counterpart at Westminster on the extent to which the same system should operate throughout the UK – he is not obliged to replicate everything Westminster does.
Many thanks to the Greater Village Regeneration Trust, which paid for Trevor Cooke (GVRT Housing Focus Committee) and I to attend the conference