NIFHA backs report warning of ‘increased hardship’ across NI

Audit findings said to be a “timely reminder” of welfare reform issues still to be faced.

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Patrick Thompson, deputy chief executive of the National Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA), has thrown his support behind the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report outlining increased hardship across the region brought by welfare ‘reform’.

NIFHA is due to meet this week, with the three other housing federations in Great Britain to the joint the ‘5 Asks’ Universal Credit campaign to ensure accurate reflection of local member experience.

Thompson said NIFHA welcomes the report at a time when housing associations are seeing in much greater detail the negative effects of the move to Universal Credit on their tenants, despite the safety net of the welfare mitigation payments that were introduced to insulate claimants from the full impact of reform.

He said: “Rent arrears are a persistent issue for tenants and landlords alike, and it seems likely that the safety net of the mitigations could end as planned in March 2020.

“The Housing Executive has warned that the end of mitigations could make matters worse for social housing tenants, saddling them with the challenge of finding an extra £21m – some £5.8m of which applies to housing association tenants – to cover their resulting rent shortfall, due to the ‘bedroom tax’ alone.”

Published earlier today, the report warned welfare ‘reform’ may affect the ability of Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities to meet its Programme for Government targets for housing.

Figures from Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) show there are almost 20,950 children in families waiting for social housing and at least 13,636 in housing stress.

Thompson said the report reinforces the findings of the recent paper Migrations on a Cliff, co-produced by Advice NI, Housing Rights and Law Centre (NI) in offering a “timely opportunity” to take stock of the problems still to be faced.

One example is the nature of existing housing stock being not particularly suitable for applying a “bedroom tax” in relation to under occupancy.

“We now have a very real and looming problem of the current housing stock profile not being able to assist the thousands of social tenants who may be under occupying larger homes, as there aren’t enough smaller homes available for them to move to,” said Thompson.

“With no functioning NI Assembly, there are no signs that there are plans to encourage the construction of more suitably sized properties to offset the ending of the mitigations.

“And, if there were, it is unlikely that there would be sufficient numbers built within a suitable time frame to enable tenants to avoid bedroom tax.

“Without the correct stock, is the government not forcing tenants into further hardship?  How much power will our civil servants have to move the mitigations agenda forward?”  he said.

Given the recognised issues with the rollout of Universal Credit, NIFHA is encouraged by the Department for Communities’ (DfC) announcement that “to ensure Northern Ireland has the opportunity to consider learning from the recently announced managed migration pilot in Great Britain”, DfC will not now commence managed migration in July 2019.

Instead, it will defer the beginning of that phase until 2020 and aim to complete by the end of 2023.

This delay, Thompson said, should be used to address important issues with Universal Credit (UC) before the migration begins.

He said: “Despite some of the unique flexibilities that the DfC has introduced here, there are still a number of critical issues with UC that we and our members desire to see addressed before managed migration is started in Northern Ireland.

“NIFHA is meeting this week with the three other housing federations in Great Britain and will be discussing the Four Fed’s joint ‘5 Asks’ UC campaign to ensure that we are reflecting accurately the experiences of our local members.

He added: “We will continue to work hard to drive changes in the UC process to end endemic issues such as the need for increased data sharing with housing associations on UC claimants through the restoration of implicit consent, as well as greater transparency on direct payments to landlords though simultaneous payments to housing associations and claimants.”