A Stormont government facing dissolution leaves Northern Ireland open to a back door implementation of the ‘bedroom tax.’
The political standoff over the resignation of deputy first minister Martin McGuinness means an agreed delay on implementing the ‘bedroom tax’ could be over-ridden as early as next month.
Advice charity Housing Rights is calling for urgent action on the issue to ensure that, if the Northern Ireland Assembly is unable to pass regulations mitigating the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ then alternatives are explored.
Amongst alternatives pitched by Housing Rights are:
- Consideration of policy options by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and/or housing associations, at the landlord level.
- The Westminster Parliament further delaying the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’.
- The establishment of an emergency fund for affected households.
The resignation of the deputy first minister has triggered the potential dissolution of the Stormont government and fresh elections to the Assembly.
Stormont has long been in deadlock over the implementation of welfare reform, pushed through by the coalition government in Westminster and pursued now by the Conservatives.
While the ‘bedroom tax’ was rolled out across England, Wales and Scotland (before being effectively ended by the SNP), there was no political agreement in Northern Ireland on its introduction.
Now, Housing Rights warns previous promises that the ‘bedroom tax’ would not apply in Northern Ireland until 2020 may not be honoured – as they have not yet been the Northern Ireland executive.
In late 2015, when Stormont faced a financial crisis, an agreement called Fresh Start was signed between the Northern Ireland executive, and the UK and Irish governments as designed to bring budgets under control.
Delaying the implementation of the ‘bedroom tax’ was one of the mitigations.
Should the assembly dissolve it may move to an election before that delay of implantation can pass into regulation.
Housing Rights warns that could see ‘bedroom tax’ applied to Northern Ireland as soon as next month affecting around 34,000 households.
BACKGROUND – The Fresh Start Agreement
Under the Fresh Start Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to implement Welfare Reform in Northern Ireland.
Welfare powers were passed to Westminster until the end of 2016, meaning that the Welfare Reform provisions including the ‘bedroom tax’ were passed at Westminster level.
The bedroom tax was brought into law for Northern Ireland, by Westminster, via two sets of Regulations which would have brought the ‘bedroom tax’ into effect from January this year.
The Fresh Start agreement agreed that – until at least 31st March 2020 – the ‘bedroom tax’ would not apply.
Enacting this agreement to mitigate the impact is the responsibility of the Executive and Assembly.
For Welfare Reform mitigations to date, which are considered a “cross-cutting” issue, the Minister for Communities has had to bring draft Regulations to the Executive for agreement; these Regulations were then considered and passed by the Committee for Communities.
Unlike the mitigation arrangements for some other welfare changes, such as the benefit cap, no regulations to mitigate the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ have yet been brought forward.
When deputy first Minister Martin McGuinness announced his resignation it appeared the Executive would not be meeting and, as such, not be approving any draft mitigation Regulations.
If the deputy first minister is not replaced within seven days then, under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Assembly will be dissolved for elections within six weeks.
In this scenario, the Regulations cannot be passed by the Assembly’s Committee for Communities, leaving it unlikely any mitigation measures could be passed by the Assembly.
The ‘bedroom tax’ could, then, come into force across Northern Ireland as soon as February 20 affecting around 32,600 households with average losses of more than £20 per week.