Reform of our welfare system is an emotive issue, but media hype surrounding the topic has led to a great deal of unjustified alarm about so called 'cuts'. This was also the approach of a disappointingly biased report commissioned by NICVA, which was published last week.
One of the most important things to point out is that, despite what you might hear or read, the government’s plans to reform welfare do not involve benefits going down.
Benefits will go up, just at a slower rate than had been planned previously and the people who need them the most will be the most protected.
Although the government is driving this reform, the Assembly at Stormont will vote on its implementation in Northern Ireland. It is important that the legislation is passed, because breaking the principle of ‘parity’, which means that Westminster picks up the bill for the welfare system here, could cost our economy many tens of millions of pounds.
In addition, the principles behind the reforms make sense. The key change will replace a range of benefits with a Universal Credit, making the system simpler and ensuring that everyone is better off working.
There are a series of measures to ensure that people who are unemployed get the assistance they need to get back into work. That means people who have been without a job for more than two years get special help, with extra training, experience working in the community or a disciplined approach to looking for a job.
The reforms which the Conservative Party has been driving are about fairness, for instance putting a £26,000 cap on the total number of benefits that someone can claim, but they are also compassionate. They emphasise giving people a ‘hand up, rather than a hand out’, because the surest way of tackling poverty is getting the unemployed back in work. Alongside these reforms we need to create impetus for the private sector in order to provide sustainable jobs for the long term.
In Northern Ireland too many people have been abandoned to dependency on benefits for far too long. We should certainly look at how some of the policies can be tailored to our particular circumstances, but it is important that they also benefit from the principles behind the government’s reform.
We would be letting people down otherwise.