The UK Government have provided unprecedented levels of support to families and employers throughout the covid crisis. We want to see a prospering economy that reduces child poverty. Welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, with no official statistical information yet available on its impact in the current year. However, the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to combating poverty via the anti-poverty and child poverty strategies, which were agreed in “New Decade, New Approach”.
The first lockdown saw an 80% increase in universal credit claims in Northern Ireland. The five- week wait for universal credit increases family debt and child poverty. With Christmas seven weeks away, and in the middle of a second lockdown, is it not now time to end the five-week delay?
I say to the hon. Gentleman that nobody has to wait five weeks for a payment under universal credit. Advances are a mechanism for getting claimants faster access to their entitlement, allowing them to receive 13 payments over 12 months, with up to 12 months to repay the advance. Basic eligibility checks for advances are now completed remotely, allowing people to access the support they need despite covid-19 restrictions. The repayment time for advances has already been extended to 12 months, and it will be further extended to 24 months from October 2021.
The legacy of the troubles and the intergenerational trauma means that Northern Ireland has some of the highest levels of disability, mental health issues and low pay in the entire UK. This means that the £20 per week cut to universal credit planned for 2021 will hit Northern Ireland the hardest of all. Will the Minister urge his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to rule it out, to stop families sliding into hardship?
I recognise the factors that the hon. Lady points to, and it is important that there was extra funding under NDNA to recognise some of the unique factors facing Northern Ireland. The extra £20 a week has been put into universal credit to support people through this difficult time.
We are ever mindful that Northern Ireland has already given £1.3 million for free school meals. Can the Minister further outline the impact of child poverty on the additional 100,000 children in Northern Ireland who are now on that list due to covid, according to the facts from the Department for the Economy? Will he also tell us whether additional assistance will be available for those in households who are now excluded from tax credits if they have a third or fourth child born after the 2017 cut-off date? How can we help these extra children who are now subject to child poverty?
I do not recognise that estimate. The official figures that the Executive have published suggest that child poverty has decreased in both absolute and relative terms since 2015, but I absolutely recognise the need to provide extra support during this time. There is extra resource available to the Executive in terms of the £2.4 billion provided so far, and we will continue to work closely with them to support families in Northern Ireland, while recognising the £9 billion that has already been put into strengthening the welfare system across the UK.