Impending changes to the welfare system are causing a "genuine sense of fear and trepidation" throughout the county.

The UK Government has decided that the current welfare system has two key problems: work incentives are poor, and the system is too complex.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith decided to reform the benefit system to make it "fairer, more affordable and better able to tackle poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency." The Welfare Reform Act was passed in Westminster on 8 March and the Executive passed the Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Bill 60 votes to 42 at its second stage on 9 October. The Bill will be debated at committee stage until 22 January 2013 but cannot break parity with Westminster.

The two major areas of concern are changes to Housing Benefits and DLA.

"There is huge concern about what is coming down the line amongst the constituents that I talk to," UUP MLA Tom Elliott tells the Impartial Reporter.

Sinn F�in MLA Phil Flanagan adds: "There are concerns in our communities as many people, especially the most vulnerable in our society or those on low wages, rely on some form of benefit to survive." More support is needed for advice workers, both men agree.

Locals are not fully aware of the changes on the way, according to Manager of Fermanagh Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB) Siobhan Peoples.

"Fermanagh CAB fear that the impact of this Bill will be the reduction in benefit entitlement and payments for many of the most vulnerable people in society," she states.

The key welfare reforms are: From October 2013, Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) will replace DLA for working age claimants (i.e. 16-64 year olds). Medical examinations will be carried out and claims will be reassessed every three years. Customers aged 65 and over on DLA will not be moved to PIPs.

From April 2014, a monthly or twice-monthly payment of Universal Credit will replace means-tested JSA, means-tested ESA, Income Support, child and working Tax Credits and Housing Benefit.

From 1 April 2013, Housing Benefit in England, Scotland and Wales will be cut for social housing tenants who have spare bedrooms (i.e. bedroom tax). Pensioners will not be affected. A date for implementation in Northern Ireland has not yet been announced. However, long waiting lists and the lack of one-bedroom social housing is a problem in the region.

Siobhan Peoples welcomes the UK Government's aim to use Universal Credit as an incentive to get long-term unemployed back to work. However, there aren't enough jobs out there, she believes.

The move from DLA to Personal Independence Payments is driven by "a budgetary approach rather than the interests of disabled people in our community or to promote independent living," she states.

"Claimants of DLA have been unfairly branded as 'work-shy' whilst in reality, DLA is paid to those in or out of work to support the costs of living with a disability, which are on the rise." Housing Benefit claimant's are likely to be penalised, despite there not being enough single-occupancy social housing in the county, Siobhan continues.

Tom Elliott has accused the Department for Social Development of failing to effectively communicate the changes. "Now on a weekly basis, more and more people are contacting my office with a genuine sense of fear and trepidation," he states.

Urgent investment is needed in front-line staff and advice workers to handle "a landslide of enquires once this reform is implemented," he believes.

Phil Flanagan predicts that the impact of the 'bedroom tax' and PIPs will be "more acutely felt" in a rural society like Fermanagh.

"In rural areas there is not the adequate housing stock of single bedroom apartments to accommodate single people and they may very well suffer as a result," he states.

"Similarly, changes to DLA can be felt more so in rural areas in terms of mobility and increased isolation." For more details, see Thursday's Impartial Reporter