Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Stormont needs a face-saving way out of welfare reform mess

Ivan Lewis, the shadow Secretary of State

The message is clear from all the Westminster parties: if we don't implement welfare reform we must foot the bill ourselves.

Ivan Lewis, the shadow Secretary of State, is the latest to weigh in. If Labour forms the next Government, he told the BBC's Nolan show yesterday, "we would not be able to reverse many of the reforms that are currently being put into place and what I would say to the politicians of Northern Ireland is this: devolution says that if you don't implement welfare reform, there are financial penalties. You have to find the money elsewhere."

The bill will be up to £100m this year. It will have to be cut from other budgets and, as Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State warned, if we allow our system to differ too much from Britain we will eventually have to provide our own computers and software to operate it

Some changes can be made. For instance, we can delay the impact of the notorious bedroom tax, which Labour has pledged to abolish if it wins the next election.

Even these modifications will cost us. The bill is £43.7m this year – if we make the modifications that have been agreed with the Treasury. That is likely to be as good as it gets. As Mr Lewis said: "The Treasury is not in negotiating mode."

This is a difficult choice, which will hurt some claimants. Anyone who watched last week's BBC Panorama will have seen the brutal impact which another reform – the benefits cap – is having.

That reform, which Labour will not change, has resulted in payments to many families being reduced to a level where it is impossible for them to find accommodation in London. As a result they are being forced to uproot and move north, to places like Birmingham.

Fortunately, the benefits cap, which is meant to ensure that nobody is better off out of work, won't bite so deeply here. Like Birmingham, we have rents which are well below the levels charged in the south of England.

If Westminster parties allow this to happen in constituencies where they are looking for votes, there is little chance that they will decide to subsidise special treatment for us – however hard we dig our heels in.

Our parties should get together after the May elections and agree a face-saving way out of this mess.

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