I am sure that when Ian Duncan Smith first proposed his Welfare Reform Programme he did not anticipate that it would destabilise the Northern Ireland Executive and yet, like several other issues. it has driven a wedge between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
More importantly it has added tension to an already fraught relationship between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness.
Opinion polls show that most people support the objectives of the Welfare Reform Programme - to incentivise work, to ensure that benefits go to the most deserving and to reduce the overall burden of the benefits bill.
While the devil may be in the detail the damage comes with the implementation. One element that has significant potential to cause damage on a wide scale is the bedroom tax or Spare Room Subsidy. While the underlying premise may seem quite reasonable (maximising the use of the social housing stock) the practical truth is that almost all of us need a spare bedroom because we do not live isolated lives in neatly demarcated social spaces. In other words families have blurred edges and being able to have people to stay –children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, parents, friends is part and parcel of life.
Sometimes it can be essential, for example during family crises (and who doesn’t have a crisis from time to time?) but at other times it is just good to do. It is part of caring for each other, of friendship and belonging. For example some people with mental health problems need a family member or close friend to stay with them occasionally for support or safety.
What’s more these relationships matter. Children benefit from spending time with grandparents; in some families they play a vital role. The Welfare Reform Bill states that grandparents of working age will be entitled to just one bedroom. This will make it very difficult for grandchildren to stay overnight. For many children grandparents are an important positive influence, for the most vulnerable they can provide a necessary place of safety.
When parents are separated only the designated main carer, usually the mother, is allocated bedrooms for the children. This will make regular week-ends or overnights with dad very difficult. That is seriously bad news given the importance of fathers in their children’s lives. Do we seriously think that this can do anything but exacerbate the problems that many young people are struggling with?
The benign sounding Spare Room Subsidy has the potential to undermine the social fabric of our society. Instead of strengthening communities by supporting family relationships it will put them under greater strain. This risks causing greater disaffection and alienation among our most vulnerable young people and that is bad news for all of us.