1. ITV Report

NI preparing for biggest benefits shake-up in 70 years

The benefits system is about to undergo a major shake-up. Credit: UTV

More than 300,000 households in Northern Ireland are preparing for the introduction of the biggest change to the benefits system in 70 years.

Universal Credit for working age people is replacing six benefits and will be introduced in Limavady from Wednesday this week.

First time claimants in the Limavady area will be affected first.

Then, over a phased period of time, anyone claiming one of six current benefits will eventually be moved on to Universal Credit.

The six benefits are:

  • Jobseekers' Allowance
  • Employment & Support Allowance
  • Income Support
  • Child Tax Credits
  • Working Tax Credits
  • Housing Benefit

The idea is to make the system simpler as well as to reduce fraud and to encourage people into work.

It will eventually affect 312,000 households in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Communities, which has responsibility for Universal Credit in Northern Ireland, is estimating that 114,000 households could be £26 a week better off.

However, 126,000 homes could be £39 a week worse off - especially lone parents and those claiming disability premiums.

Universal Credit is facing strong criticism in Great Britain where the roll-out process has already begun.

There are claims that a six-week delay for new payments is too long and is forcing some families into rent arrears and debt.

But Denis McMahon from the Department of Communities has said his team has had time to learn from mistakes made elsewhere.

"We work very closely with our colleagues in the Department of Work and Pensions at official level and they have given us a great deal of support and they have been very open with us about what has worked and what hasn't worked so well and we are trying to apply all of that," he said.

It's important to say that the Executive has put in place some really good safeguards around, for example, mitigation payments for people who lose out.

– Denis McMahon, Department of Communities

Before its collapse, the Stormont Executive agreed to mitigate to help ease the transfer to Universal Credit.

It agreed that there should be some differences to Great Britain - including that housing payments would be made directly to landlords.

Sanctions for breaking the rules also won't be as severe in Northern Ireland.

One of the other aims of Universal Credit is to encourage users to access and manage their claims online.

It is a big shake-up of the system and, with that, the experts say there are bound to be some challenges along the way.

But both Government and advice groups say help will be available.