A government department which oversaw the roll-out of Universal Credit across Northern Ireland celebrated its completion with £1,125 worth of cake for staff.
Forty cakes decorated with the flagship benefit’s logo were shared out among 2,000 workers for the Department for Communities (DfC) in Stormont, during nationwide team-building events.
It was a gesture to recognise “the commitment and hard work of staff”, the DfC said in a statement, but comes amid widespread criticism of the scheme, which combines six benefit payments into one monthly sum and which campaigners say is pushing more people into poverty.
Universal Credit was rolled out gradually across Northern Ireland from September 2017, with the implementation being completed earlier this month in Ballymena.
“This was a significant and challenging implementation effort for the department, involving the recruitment and training of almost 2,000 staff across 40 locations throughout the province,” the DfC said.
“To mark the completion of this task, a total of £1,125 was spent to purchase 40 cakes which were shared amongst 2,000 staff at team building events across Northern Ireland.
“The cakes were provided to mark the end of the introduction of Universal Credit, recognising the commitment and hard work of staff in delivering the new service to customers across Northern Ireland.”
Opposition Social Democratic and Labour Party deputy leader Nichola Mallon said the act was “tasteless”.
She told the Irish News: “To brand cakes with the Universal Credit logo is tasteless and insensitive. It shows a careless disregard for the impact it is having on those families forced into debt and in through the doors of foodbanks.”
While she recognised that front line staff should be rewarded for their work, she added: “It is also true however that Universal Credit, and the minimum five-week wait for your first payment, is causing financial hardship especially in North Belfast, Antrim and Ballymena where it is being rolled out in the mouth of Christmas.”
Campaigners have criticised the scheme, with a protest against the roll-out, orchestrated by trade union Unite, taking place in Belfast city centre at the end of last month.