A benefits poster in Lewisham high street. As new changes come in, it's essential the vulnerable are protected. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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As the Emergency Budget comes closer, the government must remember that benefits are a public service

The Government has consistently maintained its intention to protect vulnerable people - but will it deliver?

With less than a week to go until the Emergency Budget, there is growing speculation about how the further £12bn savings from the welfare budget will be made. In the last few days alone there have been more rumours, including of cuts to Employment and Support Allowance and Housing Benefit.

Throughout, the Government has consistently maintained its intention to protect vulnerable people while at the same reducing spending on benefits and tax credits.  While this intention to protect is welcome, it is still unclear exactly where the cuts will fall - so it is difficult to establish whether Government will be able to deliver on this promise.  That’s why it is vital that the Government understands the full impact further cuts will have on people’s lives and has the right support in place.

New analysis from Citizens Advice, published today, adds front line perspective to three potential reforms that have been mooted in the Conservative manifesto or already outlined by Ministers: lowering the benefit cap, freezing working-age benefits and removing housing benefit for young people who are unemployed.

Plans have been set out to reduce the benefit cap to £23,000 and reports today suggest that outside of London and the South East it could be brought down to £20,000.

A reduction to £23,000 would mean an additional 70,000 adults and 200,000 more children having their benefits capped.  Those subject to the benefit cap include people who are temporarily out of work and looking for a job as well as those with full-time caring responsibilities for elderly relatives.

It’s clear from those already turning to Citizens Advice for help around the cap that the measure has a disproportionate impact on women, ethnic minorities and households in high rent areas.  Lowering the cap could exacerbate adverse effects on these groups and could mean rent in London is completely unaffordable to families where no one is currently in work.

Rent is also the big issue that should be causing concerns around the proposal to freeze most working age benefits for two years - affecting an estimated eleven million families. While inflation has been low over recent years, rents have been steadily rising, and are forecast to keep doing so. Increases in rates of private rent are expected to be twice those of CPI inflation over the next four years, so there would be a significant risk of more people falling into debt.

The Government intends for young people to be ‘earning or learning’ and to avoid benefit dependency.  Plans to restrict access to Housing Benefit for unemployed young people, which would save just £0.1bn, need to be considered carefully as they could hit vulnerable groups including care leavers, orphans or people who have parents in prison.

Young families could also fall foul of the changes: one in ten young JSA claimants receiving Housing Benefit have children of their own. Preventing unemployed people aged 18-21 from claiming Housing Benefit could have a negative impact on many young people’s long term prospects, including greater risks of homelessness and unemployment. This goes against the grain of government intentions.

It is clear from our analysis and experience that any reforms which do go ahead must be implemented at a safe and steady pace. Benefit queries have rapidly overtaken debt to be the biggest issue people turn to Citizens Advice for help with - standing at almost two million queries in the last 12 months. That’s why support must be available to help people affected adapt to the changes and move forward.  

A government serious about making sustainable savings from the welfare bill will need to get to the heart of the issues that lead to people claiming benefits to top up their income. Low paid, insecure work; childcare issues where costs and flexibility inhibit parents from getting a job or increasing their hours; and sky high private rents are all driving higher welfare expenditure. The benefit system also needs to function as a modern, responsive public service.   

It is these problems which need addressing at source if welfare spending is going to be reduced in a way that genuinely protects vulnerable people. This is what Citizens Advice and our clients will be looking for the Chancellor to address in his Budget on Wednesday.

Rachael Badger is Head of Policy research for Families, Welfare and Work at Citizen's Advice.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.