Universal credit will initially impact approximately 1,000 people in Fermanagh when it is rolled out here in February 2018, according to Fermanagh Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB).

Universal Credit will replace six existing benefits with one and was introduced in Limavady this week.

Described by Fermanagh CAB Manager Siobhan Peoples as “the biggest change that has ever happened to the benefits system”, Universal Credit will be introduced gradually across Northern Ireland from September 2017 to September 2018. It will affect new claimants. People already claiming the existing benefits will not be affected until 2019, unless their entitlement changes.

Instead of individuals filling in multiple forms and managing several benefit claims, they will claim the single benefit of Universal Credit online, using a PC, tablet or smartphone.

“It’s definitely going to cause problems. It’s going to be very challenging” stated Ms. Peoples. 

“We have clients with no IT skills, with mental health issues, physical and learning disabilities. We have clients who are absolutely terrified of the procedures involved with the benefits system – they are the most vulnerable people in society. It will be a huge culture change for them to take responsibility and have to fill in an online claim form. Many have never used a computer in their life.”

Rural broadband ‘blackspots’ are also an issue in rural Fermanagh, Ms. Peoples believes. However, the Department for Communities have distributed grants to advice centres across NI to install computers so claimants can work on their online claims, with an advisor close by. Digital Zones will also be set up in local jobs and benefits offices, where claimants can use PCs and free Wifi to access their online account, with staff available to provide help and support. 

“Fermanagh CAB is working very closely with the local Crown Buildings jobs and benefits office, which is very committed to ensuring that everything will run smoothly,” said Ms. Peoples.

Benefit claimants in Great Britain have experienced delays of up to 10 weeks, prompting calls from Sinn Féin, SDLP and some advice agencies for the roll out to be stalled in Northern Ireland.

These interventions are fruitless, according to Ms. Peoples, who said: “This change is happening and we are undergoing intensive training and have taken on a new Welfare Reform Advisor to be ready for it.”

Northern Ireland will differ from Britain in that a short-term advance payment (a loan) will be available to help claimants get by while they are waiting for their first payment. The repayments will be automatically deducted from their Universal Credit payments until the advance is fully paid back. Sanctions will be much stricter under Universal Credit and, unless a job seeker is a carer or has a serious illness, they will have to prove they have spent 35 hours per week seeking work. “What jobs are actually available for people locally?” Ms. Peoples asked. 

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew has hit out at the fact that Universal Credit will no longer pay an additional amount for a third or subsequent child born on or after 6 April 2017, unless special circumstances apply. 

One of the special circumstances is children conceived as a result of a non-consensual sexual act (including rape). 

Ms. Gildernew stated: “If women are forced to disclose a rape to claim child tax credits, service workers from a variety of areas who gain knowledge of the incident may be liable for prosecution if they don’t disclose it to police. 

“This is an immoral and entirely unjustified position for someone to be placed in for simply doing their job and aiding the vulnerable.”