By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The end of a £20 uplift in Universal Credit will have a “devastating impact” for those on benefits, Stormont’s communities minister has said.
Deirdre Hargey said she had joined together with her Welsh and Scottish counterparts to try and persuade the Westminster Government to abandon the planned benefits cut next month.
The £20 weekly rise in universal credit benefit was brought in across the UK during the coronavirus pandemic to help struggling families.
The Government has said the uplift will be removed by October as it was always intended to be a “temporary measure”.
But it has faced increasing calls from charities and the devolved administrations which think the cut would cause more pain to lower income families.
Answering questions at the Assembly on Monday, Ms Hargey said she had written to the Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey.
The Sinn Fein minister said: “I expressed my grave concern and objection to the £20 uplift of universal credit being withdrawn, particularly in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
Pictured - Deirdre Hargey
“Therese Coffey replied that the British Government had always been clear that the uplift would be a temporary measure.
“I have again written to Therese Coffey, in a joint letter with my Scottish and Welsh counterparts to seek a continuation of the £20 uplift.
“Stopping the £20 uplift will have a devastating impact on the the people at this time when they are in need of financial support.
“I have recently brought this matter to the Executive also who endorsed a letter going from the Executive calling for this money to be retained.
“We should be continuing this measure and the British Government should be maintaining this £20 uplift because we know the impact that this will have.
“If the uplift is not extended after October 5, I will include it as part of my planned review of welfare mitigation measures going forward.”
Ms Hargey added: “There are over 140,000 in receipt of Universal Credit.
“That’s £110m in terms of this £20 uplift which goes into the pockets of people here on an annual basis.
“That is a huge amount of money that will be lost with the withdrawal in October.
“This would have a devastating impact and that is why I have worked with my Executive colleagues and the ministers in Scotland and Wales to push the British Government to maintain this uplift and to protect those families.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Robbie Butler asked: “With the news that is now emerging of the energy crisis and given that the British Government may or may not act on the wishes of the devolved ministers, what measures are you going to put in place to ensure that our people who are caught in this trap do not suffer?”
Pictured - Robbie Butler
The minister said: “We are looking at the perfect storm where there is this increase in fuel, the impact of the pandemic and also of Brexit and also movements by the British Government to withdraw this lifeline from people.
“The proposal I had put to the Executive in terms of communicating with the British Government has shown not just our concern, but our objection. That was endorsed by all ministers.
“It would take £110m to maintain the uplift.
“We are looking to see what can be done, you either find the £110m, there is no pot of money sitting there so that has to come from another department, or you stop doing something else.”
Green Party MLA Rachel Woods asks for an update on the fuel poverty strategy.
Ms Hargey said: “We’re looking at options at the moment and obviously I need to bring something to the Executive in terms of getting that agreed.”