Dr Michael Wardlow: End of the road for welfare reform mitigation
Dr Michael Wardlow, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, considers the future of welfare in Northern Ireland.
The election is now over and, once again, there’s an attempt this week to restore a working government at Stormont. It is also now two years since the Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission issued a statement warning the UK Government that the introduction of welfare reform has imposed real hardship on many disabled people across Northern Ireland.
It is disappointing that nothing has changed since the Committee on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) published on 6 October 2016, found that Government reforms had led to ‘grave and systematic’ violations of the rights of disabled people.
Referring to welfare reforms specifically, the report could not be more clear - ‘Several measures have disproportionally and adversely affected the rights of persons with disabilities.’
The Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 brought Northern Ireland’s welfare system into line with the system in the rest of the United Kingdom. These changes, now four years in place, included the implementation of universal credit, the change from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments, the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’ and the benefit cap.
In 2016, the NI Executive allocated £585 million from its funds to allow for limited ‘top-up’ payments to mitigate some of the losses which many would suffer through the changes. However, these mitigation measures are due to end on 31st March 2020. This date has been known for some time.
We are now just over three months away from the end of the mitigations put in place three years ago. This puts welfare reform firmly onto the agenda for whoever takes up the reins of government here in the New Year.
Along with the NI Human Rights Commission, we’ve met the Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions about our concerns and written to the Department for Communities as well as the NI Secretary of State. In October 2019, we asked the SoS to take prompt action to implement recommendations to contribute to the fulfilment of the Government’s UNCRPD obligations in respect of disabled people in Northern Ireland. We also asked him to set out plans for legislating for a mitigation package to come into effect before the end of March 2020.
A report on the overall impact of tax and welfare reform in Northern Ireland published by the NI Human Rights Commission in November 2019 found that the greatest negative impact has been on households with a disabled child and that the more functional disabilities there are in a household, the greater the impact and the financial loss. The current mitigations package has been successful in that it has reduced losses by around 30%. The report highlights the impact on the poorest households, saying that, if the mitigations are not replaced, ‘we will plunge those households into a crisis.’
The Northern Ireland Audit Office has recognised that these mitigations have insulated Northern Ireland from the full impact of the reforms and consequently, when they end, it is likely that Northern Ireland will see the increased hardship reported in the rest of the United Kingdom. The impact of these reforms has been severe for some of the most vulnerable members of our society, which is especially relevant as Northern Ireland has a higher rate of disability at 21% than England and Wales (18%) and mental illness is 25% more prevalent than in England.
One of the groups most affected by these changes is people presenting with a disability. The impact is particularly felt when they are moved from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payments (PIP). Why? PIP is assessed by means of a points scheme which, many argue, has made it harder for applicants who may have previously been receiving DLA payments to qualify for PIP.
By way of example, the Department for Communities’ own figures show that 44% of those who claimed DLA and have moved to PIP have either been awarded reduced amounts (19%) or have been deemed not eligible for PIP (25%). Whilst those who have been awarded reduced amounts had payments mitigated to 70% of their losses for one year, those who were not deemed eligible were not entitled to any mitigation period and therefore lost all payment immediately.
The same report states that 67,000 people are expected to lose out by an average of more than £2,100 a year as a result of the change to PIP and it has been suggested that these losses may lead to poorer mental health amongst disabled benefit claimants. Similarly, due to the more frequent testing for those receiving PIP payments, there is less financial stability, which could have an adverse effect on those receiving it.
In addition, the administration of the scheme has been called into question. The UNCRPD Committee inquiry report of October 2016 says that ‘evidence indicates a persisting lack of awareness and limited knowledge of disability rights and the specific needs of persons with disabilities’ amongst those assessing disabled persons for benefits.
These changes from DLA to PIP may also affect those eligible for carer’s allowance. If the person requiring care no longer qualifies for PIP, those receiving carer’s allowance may also lose their payments. In this situation, welfare supplementary payments are payable for up to one year to mitigate these losses. The end to the mitigation period for these payments would have further negative impacts for families who relied on PIP and carer’s allowance payments.
The Equality Commission, the NI Human Rights Commission, the UNCRPD Committee, Advice NI, Housing Rights and the Law Centre NI all support a continuation of some form of mitigation package with potential reform of the nature of the mitigations after March 2020. Parliament’s Work and Pensions committee alongside the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has also recommended that the mitigation package is extended for another four years.
Time is running out. This now requires urgent action to avoid further hardship and distress to Northern Ireland’s disabled people. People deserve a reaction from our Political leaders before the time runs out.