The newly appointed Social Development Minister has warned Northern Ireland cannot be treated in the same way as the rest of the UK when it comes to pushing through welfare reform.
Alex Attwood is due to travel to London for a key meeting with the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare Reform, on Monday to outline his concerns for the future of the benefit system in Northern Ireland.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph ahead of the talks, Mr Attwood said the reform of the welfare system currently being considered by the coalition Government is the single biggest issue facing his department.
He said: “There is a danger we could see the old Tory fox dressed up in a coalition grey suit when it comes to the issues of welfare and benefits.
“There is a risk that behind the headline of welfare reform there will be some old Tory attitudes that people on benefits need to get squeezed, that they are not entitled to benefits. It is my obligation to ensure the London Government appreciates we have a responsibility for welfare.
“We need to be aware of what could be coming down the track and that things don’t put a greater burden on those in need.”
Westminster funds welfare payments in Northern Ireland — an annual bill of over £4bn — and changes to the system are implemented by central government.
Mr Attwood is concerned planned welfare reform could result in changes to the system which would lead to additional suffering for some of the most vulnerable members of society.
He plans to press Lord Freud and Mr Duncan Smith for additional details on their plans, while reminding them of the special circumstances in Northern Ireland which have led to areas of extreme deprivation.
In particular, he pointed to concerns over the introduction of the new employment and support allowance in October.
Ultimately, Mr Attwood said he would like to see more power handed to Stormont on the issue of welfare reform.