LOCAL Ulster Unionist Party representatives have called on the Social Development Minister to delay one of the most controversial changes proposed to the welfare system.
Danny Kinahan MLA claims the plan to cut housing benefit for those families who live in properties with spare bedrooms, in the absence of any alternative accommodation, is “totally illogical”. The South Antrim Assemblyman made his comments after it was revealed to his party that the wider south Antrim area will be one of the hardest-hit by the proposed changes, with over 2,000 Housing Executive tenants alone being affected.
“My party is clear that significant reform is needed to the welfare system; a person should absolutely always be better off in work than on benefits, that is why I broadly support the idea of reducing housing benefit. But until the Department of Social Development realises that people deserve to be offered the chance to downsize before such a cut, then it is simply not feasible for Northern Ireland,” Mr Kinahan commented.
“On average, NIHE tenants will lose £8.25 per week if deemed to be under-occupying by one room, and £14.70 per week for two rooms. In the case of housing association tenants the figures are even worse, with an average cut of £9.42 for one room and £17.48 for two.
“It is deeply disappointing that the current draft legislation in the Assembly has sought only to penalise some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
“My party will not be supporting the proposals for as long as they continue to fail to address the inherent problems at the heart of our benefits system; most especially the trap of welfare dependency which too many find themselves caught in.”
The Ulster Unionists have tabled an amendment to the legislation which, if successful, would see the bedroom tax delayed until at least July 2016. It would then only proceed after the decision was put to the Assembly.
According to Mr Kinahan, such a move would give the Department ample time to prepare to mitigate against some of the most harmful effects on the people who stand to lose most from the cuts, by putting in place additional forms of support.
Leader of the UUP group on Newtownabbey Borough Council, John Scott, added: “It is worrying that in Newtownabbey alone nearly 1,300 Housing Executive tenants, as well as hundreds more living in housing association accommodation, will be hit by this cut through absolutely no fault of their own. I do not believe people on lower incomes should have to take the fall for consecutive years of failures within the Department to appropriately plan our social housing stock.
“I would understand and indeed support this reduction if suitable alternative accommodation was available for people to downsize, but the reality is only a fraction of people who will be hit with this will have an option to move. I believe it has been an inherently wrong decision by Minister McCausland to push forward with these proposals when he knew the impact it would have on people locally. He must now reconsider his decision and accept that he has got it wrong on this issue.”
Meanwhile, East Antrim DUP MLA Alastair Ross said there must be a “common sense approach” to the issue of under-occupancy and cuts to housing benefit.
“It is recognised that there is a lack of housing stock in Northern Ireland for single occupants, couples and small families. That is a situation that the Housing Executive are attempting to rectify in East Antrim, as the construction of new homes in Monkstown estate shows.
“However, there are many cases where long term tenants have watched their families grow and leave home, meaning that two older people now occupy a three bedroom house. There would rightly be an outcry if the Executive forced them to move to a smaller dwelling when they have been a tenant in good standard for thirty years or more.
“I will be continuing with my endeavours to ensure that we have a common sense approach to this issue in Northern Ireland,” he commented.