Top-up scheme for 'Bedroom Tax' needs Executive approval

Top-up scheme for 'Bedroom Tax' needs Executive approval

A payment scheme to alleviate thousands of welfare recipients when the Government's so-called ``bedroom tax'' is introduced in Northern Ireland cannot be implemented without Stormont Executive approval, one of its departments has confirmed.

The mitigation measures need the official endorsement of the Executive and Assembly to be introduced, the Department of Communities said.

Almost 34,000 households are set to be affected in the region when the controversial policy of reducing benefits to those with more bedrooms than deemed necessary is rolled out next month.

A Department for Communities spokesman said potential ``emergency procedures'' would now be examined by Minister Paul Givan.

Extra money provided by Stormont to make up for cuts to welfare reform at Westminster was a key plank in an earlier agreement to save power-sharing. It had been a central Sinn Fein demand.

But the looming implosion of the institutions following Martin McGuinness's resignation means the executive is currently unable to meet to sign off the payments. 
The Department for Communities spokesman said:

``The Social Sector Size Criteria is due to be introduced in Northern Ireland on 20 February 2017.

``The Department for Communities has been preparing systems and processes which would ensure that no housing benefit claimant in Northern Ireland would suffer any negative financial impact.

``The Department has also prepared the necessary legislation, for Executive approval, to implement the mitigation scheme.

``Assembly approval is required in order to give the department the necessary powers to make payments to support the approximate 33,720 housing benefit claimants who will be impacted by the introduction of the Social Sector Size Criteria.

``Without Executive and Assembly approval the department does not have the legal basis to introduce the mitigation payments as planned. The minister has tasked officials to look at what emergency procedures may be available.

``Mitigation payments are already in place for claimants impacted by changes to Employment and Support Allowance, Benefit Cap and the introduction of Personal Independence Payment. These payments will not be affected.''

Earlier a housing advice charity warned that the least well-off households in Northern Ireland will lose an average of £20 a week.

Kate McCauley, a manager at Housing Rights, said:

``We are concerned that if the current political uncertainty continues it could have unintended consequences for people living in social housing who stand to be impacted by the bedroom tax.

``If the regulations to make arrangements for supplementary payments are not brought forward, an alternative solution must be found.''

Steps to protect those on benefits were championed by Sinn Fein and negotiated as part of the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said the blame lay with Arlene Foster for failing to step aside as First Minister while an investigation was held into a botched green energy scheme.

He added: ``The responsibility for the current difficulties don't rest with Sinn Fein. When you get a scandal to the tune of half a billion pounds sterling it has to be dealt with, there has to be transparency, that has to be protected.''

He said it could have been addressed without an election.

``The person who set her face against that was the First Minister.

``She is to blame for the collapse of the institutions and I stress again that Martin McGuinness's record is clear for all to see and it is obvious to anybody fair-minded that this was a step taken by him because he felt, and I support him absolutely, that he had no other option.''

Housing Rights said the dissolution of the Assembly would mean claimants receive less money if they live in a property deemed to have a spare bedroom.

DUP East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said: ``In a bizarre irony, the decision to resign and walk out of the Northern Ireland Executive means there will be no Assembly to pass the mitigation measures that were due from the Stormont House Agreement and so Sinn Fein will be delivering the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland in six weeks' time.''