Welfare reform millions set aside by Stormont not spent
More than 60% of money set aside by Stormont to soften the impact of welfare changes for claimants has not been spent.
Details of the under spend were revealed in an NI auditor report.
Kieran Donnelly also warned of the "significant hardship" that claimants can expect when the mitigation fund runs out next year.
About £213m was to be used over the past two years to ease the pain of those facing cuts to their benefits.
But the report states that only £77m has been handed out.
The auditor general said some of the under spend had been blamed on delays in rolling out the changes and in a lower than expected take up.
The money is part of the £500m mitigation fund - a key part of Stormont's Fresh Start Agreement in 2015.
But it is due to run out in 14 months and Mr Donnelly has warned of greater hardship for claimants and an increased demand for food banks.
He is now calling for measures to be taken to address what he calls this "very real risk".
"The absence of democratic scrutiny over the past couple of years has exacerbated the difficulties here," he said.
"We recommend that the department looks closely at reasons for the under spend and explores how best to use mitigation funding.
"It is really, really important that the department explores some of the hard cases - the unintended consequences - and gets feedback from community groups and elected representatives so that there is very rapid learning about unintended consequences."
The auditor general said there was "no doubt that people are feeling pain".
Welfare changes in Northern Ireland
- Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is gradually being replaced by the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for people of working age.
- Housing benefit has been reduced under the spare room subsidy policy, which critics call the bedroom tax. Payments are now calculated based on the number of bedrooms in tenants' homes, relative to the number of occupants.
- The benefit cap has set a maximum limit on the total amount a household can receive in welfare payments in a year. The government's stated aim was to ensure benefits claimants are not better off than the average working family.
- Universal credit is merging six existing benefits into one, replacing jobseeker's allowance; employment and support allowance; income support; housing benefit; child tax credit and working tax credit with one payment.
- Last week, plans to move existing benefits claimants from the old system to universal credit were postponed in Northern Ireland until 2020, after the Westminster government announced a raft of changes to welfare reform.
The Department for the Communities welcomed the report and said it was pleased with the assessment that "considerable progress" had been made to date in managing the implementation of a "complex programme of welfare reforms".
"However, until the formal audit process is fully complete, which includes a response from the department to the report's recommendations, it is not in a position to comment at this stage," a spokeswoman said.
One woman's story
Margaret, who has been on DLA for the past 15 years and has recently been assessed for PIP, told BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme losing her benefits would have serious consequences.
"I would probably end up homeless because it helps to pay the shortfall of my rent," she said.
"It helps me with my taxis to wherever I need to get to as my walking is not brilliant," she added.
Margaret said she needed to use a rotator for trips to the local shops.
"Anything local, which would probably take somebody five or 10 minutes to walk to, can take me up to an hour because I have to take breaks because my legs go and I end up wheezing," she said.
"I am not going to be able to make it to hospital appointments because I can't afford the taxis.
"I already suffer from depression and this isn't helping. It really is a draining situation that the government is putting on everybody."
Why are NI welfare payments different from rest of the UK?
Currently, many Northern Ireland welfare claimants receive "top ups" or supplementary payments if their benefits are cut as a result of UK-wide changes to the welfare system.
Northern Ireland also has a shortage of one-bedroom social housing stock, meaning a large number of tenants will be hit by the bedroom tax.
The Northern Ireland Executive allocated a budget of £585m to mitigate the effects of welfare reform over a four-year period from 2016 to 2020.
However, Stormont's devolved government has not functioned for the past two years, following a breakdown in relations between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.
Civil servants are now in charge of the day-to-day running of public services.
The budget runs out in March 2020 and no locally-elected ministers are in post to extend mitigation measures.
How many people are likely to be affected?
Tens of thousands of low income households will lose money if mitigation measures are not renewed, according to charity Advice NI, which is assisting benefits claimants to cope with the new system.
Kevin Higgins from the charity warned of a looming "cliff edge" of financial misery for benefits recipients.
He cited the example of the so-called bedroom tax, claiming that the number of local households losing money could rise from the current figure of 175 to 38,700 when mitigation ends next year.
What are the report's recommendations?
Mr Donnelly wants the Department for Communities to carry out regular checks of how welfare reforms are working "in practice".
The auditor general has asked the department to work with other agencies to improve "the clarity and simplicity of its communications" with benefits claimants.
Mr Donnelly has also recommended that the department leads an assessment of the "wider impacts of welfare reforms across Northern Ireland society".