In Extern we understand only too well the personal ‘cliff edges’ that many of our most vulnerable service users live alongside every day, whether through mental health issues, drug and alcohol use or family breakdowns. Thankfully, our experience and skills as an organisation – honed over 40 years - allow us to offer real and meaningful solutions to create the environment so that individuals can excel.

But when it comes to the cliff edge of welfare reforms in Northern Ireland, it appears those affected are very much at the mercy of others who are unaware of the impact that such decisions can have on individuals. When mitigation payments totaling £585m were first approved by the NI Executive in 2016, it was to ease the difficulties of transitioning to the new system for many who were in receipt of benefits.

We are now a few months away, and a potential disaster awaits for many vulnerable people. On paper at least, welfare reform makes sense, given the often baffling array of benefits the public can be faced with – JSA, ESA, Tax Credits, Housing Benefit, and so on. The practicalities of implementing this have, unfortunately, been much more challenging, and nowhere more so than with Universal Credit, described as the biggest change to social welfare payments here in 70 years.

At a grassroots level, we have already seen the challenges posed by the outworkings of Universal Credit on people who use our services. We have several cases of individuals and families who have been left without benefits payments for five to six weeks during the transition to Universal Credit. By taking up the offer of advance payments – in effect, loans – service users are already in arrears from the outset.

Indeed, one Extern service user faced enormous anxiety during their transition from supported accommodation to an Extern Homes property after they were forced to wait almost four months for their rent to be paid. Doubtless this is not an isolated incident for many renters on Universal Credit, and it’s fair to say that another landlord might not have taken such an understanding view of their financial situation as Extern Homes did.

A similar situation faces those for whom a change in circumstances has meant a so-called ‘natural migration ‘to Universal Credit. A new baby, new job, relationship break-up, or change in immigration status, for example, means they will automatically be transferred to the new system from the existing legacy benefits they’re already familiar with.

This is something which could affect our homeless clients seeking a place to rent in the private sector, as if they were to find a private property which is not an NI Housing Executive single let, they will automatically be ‘migrated’ to Universal Credit. Given the length of time it can take to make such a transition, they may need up to three months’ worth of rent to safeguard this move.

As Universal Credit is a technology-based system, this also presents a barrier for some service users who have limited access to or ability with online services. In one case, a young man we work with was advised to walk around his housing estate until he could find a wi-fi hotspot, due to lack of credit on his phone. For others among our client base, access to the internet may not be a possibility due to bail or probation restrictions, or a lack of educational awareness of how to access services online.

To date, the Universal Credit changeover has only affected those making new applications. This summer, however, the process begins in earnest when existing benefits claimants will begin to be transitioned to Universal Credit, so we can expect to see many more cases of difficulties arising for our service users. These include an increased risk of homelessness, as some landlords are actively deciding not to take people on benefits.

While our frontline workers have been doing good work in supporting our service users as they navigate these complex obstacles, at a senior level within Extern we are also keenly aware of these challenges and have joined the Cliff Edge campaign. Over this next couple of months we will be gathering data from services to demonstrate the real impact of Universal Credit. This evidence will be vital as we actively lobby our elected representatives and policy-makers as to the impact of changes.

There is a strong argument for welfare reform from the point of view that the personal responsibility it offers can be a foundation for individual rights and empowerment, but to achieve this there needs to be support and guidance provided to help people change. As our experience has shown so far, Universal Credit has the potential to create more problems than it solves.

Unfortunately, living in poverty and deprivation – whether in the short or long term – offers no empowerment at all.

By Thelma Abernethy, Extern Assistant Director