Demand for food banks could increase in 2020 when welfare changes are introduced, the Northern Ireland Audit Office has warned.
Mitigation measures agreed by the last Executive which shielded the most vulnerable from Westminster’s reforms are due to end in March 2020.
The Trussell Trust charity reported a 17% average increase in demand for food banks in 2016-17 compared with 2015-16 in areas where the Universal Credit benefit had been rolled out in the rest of the UK.
Auditor and comptroller general Kieran Donnelly said: “Northern Ireland has been insulated from the full impact of welfare reforms by the availability of mitigation schemes and local flexibilities.
“When the mitigation schemes end, there is a risk that we will see the same hardship and increase in the demand for food banks reported elsewhere in the UK.
“The Department’s current review of mitigations should focus on what actions need to be taken to address this very real risk.”
The Department for Communities launched a social supermarket pilot scheme aimed at combating food poverty in October 2017.
It has helped around 1,000 people to date and is being extended until September 30 2019.
About 33,000 benefit claimants in Northern Ireland could lose out once the special welfare reform exemptions end, the Housing Executive previously warned.
No ministers are in place at Stormont to engineer their renewal.
A total of £21 million could be lost each year.
Annual social security expenditure in Northern Ireland currently totals £7.3 billion, £6 billion of which is administered by the Department for Communities.
The Westminster Government began introducing extensive welfare reforms in the rest of the UK in 2012 and in Northern Ireland in 2016, with Assembly consent, following the Fresh Start Agreement.
The Fresh Start Agreement provided £585 million from the Northern Ireland block grant for the four years ending March 2020 to fund a mitigation package to “top up” reductions in benefit payments.
Reforms of the benefit system include the implementation of the Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit but have sparked public protest.
The Department has estimated the changes in Northern Ireland will lead to savings of approximately £3 billion for the Westminster Government by 2025-26.
Mr Donnelly added: “Welfare reforms provide significant challenges to the Department for Communities given the large number of claimants, complex benefit regulations (further complicated by mitigation measures) and ensuring claimants receive their benefits on time.
“Although the Department has made considerable progress to date, it is too early to comment on whether it is likely to achieve the savings it has estimated or overall value for money.”
A spokesman for the Department for the Communities said the report noted considerable progress in managing the implementation of a complex programme of welfare reforms as well as new systems introduced for administering mitigation measures.
“However, until the formal audit process is fully complete, which includes a response from the Department to the report’s recommendations, it is not in a position to comment at this stage.
“The Department’s remit is the administration of policy as set out by the Northern Ireland Executive. The Department remains committed, in line with existing political agreement, to implementing the welfare reforms.”