Community Advice Fermanagh have urged people in the county who are currently receiving Tax Credits benefits to be aware a change is coming to how they receive this benefit from April 1 – and if they do not accept the invite to change, their payments could stop.

The Department For Communities will commence the first phase of its ‘Move to UC’ programme from April 1.

Every person in Northern Ireland on a legacy benefit – such as Tax Credits, Housing Benefit, Income Support, Employment and Support Allowance (income-related), or Job Seeker’s Allowance (income-related) – will at some point have to move on to the new benefit, known as ‘Universal Credit’, or UC.

The first phase of the ‘Move to UC’ within Northern Ireland is aimed at those receiving Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit only.

It shall be known as the Discovery Phase. Claimants of Tax Credits will receive a Migration Notice inviting them to move to UC within a three-month period from April.

This notice will tell them that their Tax Credits benefit is now coming to an end, and invite them to apply for UC.

Community Advice Fermanagh (CAF, formerly Citizens Advice) is urging the public to fully understand the language used within this “invitation”.

Samantha Gallagher, Assistant Manager and Welfare Rights Specialist at CAF, who also attends the Steering Group on the transition, warned: “An ‘invitation’ implies that one can accept or decline.

“[However,] if you do not apply for UC within the three-month period, your Tax Credits will stop, and you will no longer be in receipt of benefits.

“This could potentially have a knock-on affect on areas such as free school meals, uniform grants, or health costs, for example.”

Mrs. Gallagher advised that more than 3,200 people in Fermanagh are due to transition through to the new benefit from April.

There will be information within your invitation to seek independent advice from community advice agencies such as CAF. The Department has also set up a dedicated UC Department for Migration to aid this transition.

Mrs. Gallagher stressed that, for now, it is those in receipt of Tax Credits only who will be affected; however, other legacy benefits will be transitioned over the period of the next few years, concluding with ESA (income-related), which will not be transitioned until 2028-2029.

“Our advice is not to move unless you are invited to do so, as it may be the case that you are financially worse off, doing so.

“Northern Ireland will have some mitigations in place for those who are less well off due to the move to UC. These payments will gradually erode over time.”

In addition, she advised that CAF have concerns regarding the use of the term “discovery phase”, as it implies the Department have to learn from this process themselves, and thus mistakes may be made.

Mrs. Gallagher pointed out that UC is a digital benefit and it is an “excellent application”, when it works correctly, and when the user is digitally competent and has access to good digital services.

But she added that there could be some issues of underpayment or overpayment with the transition from Tax Credits to UC, and how often someone is paid can also impact UC entitlement.

“If a person is paid weekly, then for some monthly UC assessment periods, they will receive five wage payments, and in other monthly assessment periods, they will receive only four – this all has a knock-on impact on how much UC one can be paid.”

Mrs. Gallagher is keen to stress that this benefit is easily navigated when one knows how, adding: “It can also be a beneficial payment for those on lower incomes, just like Tax Credits was.

“However, it has some levels of complexities, and so we would encourage you to reach out and ask for help, and do not be afraid to query something.”

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