£20/week Universal Credit increase to end in September
NI political figures criticised the Work and Pensions Secretary's announcement that the £20/week increase to Universal Credit payments -- crucial to helping low-income households survive the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic -- would not be extended once it expires in October.
Elsewhere, research funded by the TUC union revealed that over 1 million children of key workers such as care workers, supermarket staff or delivery drivers are growing up in poverty, due to factors including their parents' low pay, insecure hours, high housing costs and insufficient level of Universal Credit support.
Critique of the Private Company Capita Contracted to the NI Benefits System
The NI Public Services Ombudsman has found that Personal Independence Payment (PIP) applicants were kept "in the dark" by the Department for Communities and Capita, the company contracted to carry out PIP assessments, and that both failed to seek out and use additional information to inform the assessments such as medical reports. She found that these factors led to people's claims being "unfairly rejected", with applicants being forced to continually appeal in order for the correct decision to be reached. MLA Mark H Durkan called the findings "unequivocal proof of systemic maladministration". The Communities Minister said that her department, among other measures, would "continue to focus on expanding the in-housing of PIP assessments".
In the wake of the NIPSO findings described above, survivors of Troubles-era violence raised concerns at the Department for Justice's awarding Capita with the contract for carrying out victims' medical assessments related to pensions awards. The Minister of Justice was urged to reconsider the decision in light of the NIPSO report.
Separately, the Minister for Communities presented plans to extend the six-month limit affecting people with terminal illness' access to five benefits to twelve months.
Addressing Income Inequality
The Health Foundation published its Unequal pandemic, fairer recovery inquiry into Covid-19 impacts in the UK. It described the ways in which the austerity measures after the 2007 financial crisis created weaknesses – poor health, increased financial insecurity and strained public services – that in turn left the UK more vulnerable to the fallout from the pandemic. Findings included, for instance, that under-65s in the poorest 10% of areas in England were almost four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those in wealthiest 10%; and that young people, disabled people, ethnic minority communities and care home residents were disproportionately affected by impacts of the pandemic. It warned against a return to austerity measures.
NI's Minister of Finance announced a new social value element to public procurement policy for some service and construction contracts. Beginning in a year's time, it will require a living wage (higher than the national wage) and also that 10% of the criteria for evaluation reflect tenders' social value (rising to 20% from June 2023).
Elsewhere, NERI analysis of Structure of Earnings Survey data on the Irish economy indicated that workers at the top ten percent mark of earnings nationally made almost four times the income of those at the bottom ten percent mark, a greater difference than in any other high-income European country.