Northern Ireland

Givan: 'Bedroom tax' impact mitigation scheme 'not a way forward'

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Máirtín Ó Muilleoir believes he could still make mitigation payments without legislation

The communities minister has said a scheme proposed by the finance minister to mitigate the impact of the 'bedroom tax' is not possible.

Under the Fresh Start deal, the executive agreed to fund a policy preventing its implementation in Northern Ireland.

But the legislation to allow it to take effect has not been passed by Stormont.

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said he believed he could still make mitigation payments but Paul Givan disagreed.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Mr Givan said: "Engaged with my officials on [the finance minister's] letter re bedroom tax. Regrettably not a way forward. I continue to explore emergency options."

The finance minister had believed the scheme would still go ahead without legislation and had outlined how this could be achieved by citing in his letter schedule 1 of the 2016 Budget Act.

If mitigating measures cannot be introduced, more than 30,000 households face having their housing benefit reduced next month.

Image caption Paul Givan had previously said that he thought the only way to mitigate the tax was to have the legislation passed

The tax is expected to cost those affected an average of £20 a week.

The communities minister told The Nolan Show he had spoken to officials in his department about emergency options to mitigate bedroom tax, but that there were no options available "initially".

"I am 99% certain that the only option to deal with mitigating the bedroom tax is to have the regulation in place," he said.

Urgent meetings

Mr Givan was also asked if the DUP took any responsibility for a bedroom tax now being brought in, to which he responded: "No, we're not the ones who brought the executive down."

Image caption Kate McCauley of Housing Rights said the cumulative impact on someone could be £100 a month

The Housing Rights organisation is seeking urgent meetings to try to avert the introduction of the levy.

Policy Manager Kate McCauley said the charity is 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".

She added: "If the regulations to make arrangements for supplementary payments are not brought forward, an alternative solution must be found.

Massive loss

"The cumulative impact on someone could be £100 a month - on 35,000 people that could be huge.

"So it's the impact primarily on people and our work is about preventing homelessness.

"So for us our real concern is that it could have a real knock on effect on housing associations and on the Housing Executive and how they manage their arrears policy, how social landlords are supposed to manage that, because that's a massive loss that they'll be facing."

James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary of state, said as bedroom tax was a devolved issue it would not be "appropriate" to intervene in the matter.

A Department for Communities spokesperson 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.

"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."

Sinn Féin MLA John O'Dowd said he had "listened with concern" to Mr Givan's assertion that there was no alternative to imposing the bedroom tax.

"The communities minister is either incompetent or engaged in a process of misleading the public and the media," said Mr O'Dowd.

"The finance minister assures me that the minister is wholly wrong in his assessment of the situation.

"He made clear that 2016 Budget Act, which was approved by the assembly, provides legislative authority to make bedroom tax mitigation payments. This will cover any expenditure up until March 2017.

"After that point, Section 59 of the 1998 (NI) Act can be used to ensure payments continue."

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