Northern Ireland

Civil servant has 'no power' to extend welfare reforms

Stormont Buildings Image copyright Niall Carson/pa

A senior civil servant has warned she has no power to extend welfare reform mitigations in Northern Ireland.

Tracy Meharg, the permanent secretary in the Department for Communities, was giving evidence to a House of Commons committee.

The welfare mitigations were introduced in 2016 and are due to expire in March next year.

Ms Meharg said that "any rollover will require legislation".

That legislation would have to be passed by either Stormont or the House of Commons.

The mitigation scheme was created to soften the impact of UK-wide welfare reforms in Northern Ireland and help those most affected by them.

For example, 33,000 people receive mitigation in relation to the so-called bedroom tax.

The tax cuts housing benefits for social housing tenants adjudged to have a spare room.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The welfare mitigation scheme was created to soften the impact of UK-wide welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, it was expected to cost those affected an average of £20 a week.

However, the NI Executive decided to mitigate those affects at an annual cost of £22m.

Ms Meharg said her department's research suggests about 70% of those benefitting from that policy do not realise they are getting the mitigation.

That is because it happens "at source" rather than the claimant having to apply for it.

Ms Meharg said her department wants to know as soon as possible if the mitigation will continue so they can start to communicate with claimants.

She said: "There is a fine line between panicking people and keeping them informed."

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