Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Number of work-shy has hit an 'alarming level'

McCausland now aiming to cut burden on public purse

Minister Nelson McCausland has said some figures outlined in reports on disability benefits were cause for concern
Minister Nelson McCausland has said some figures outlined in reports on disability benefits were cause for concern

Northern Ireland has an alarming level of ‘work-shy’ people, the Stormont minister in charge of controversial welfare reform is set to argue.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland is expected to hit out at the high numbers of people across the province who avoid employment simply because they don’t want to work.

And in a key speech to the Assembly on UK-wide plans to shake up the welfare system, the DUP man is also planning to highlight a worrying number of families where members have not been in employment “for two and three generations”.

His criticism arises from an independent survey conducted on behalf of DSD by research company Ipsos Mori. The report looks at a wide range of public attitudes to the welfare system in Northern Ireland — questioning taxpayers as well as benefit claimants.

While the detail of the report has not been revealed — or the number of work-shy families quantified — one senior official has described its findings as “quite shocking”.

The content of the report has now prompted the DUP minister to look closely at people who are on benefits simply because they don’t want to work. The stated overall aim of the reform is to encourage those who can work towards employment.

“It is not just that people don’t want to work because they will be worse off if they are in work, they just don’t see in these cases why they should work at all,” the source said.

“So that even in the past where there were more jobs or the economy was growing, jobs tended to be taken up by migrants rather than these people.”

Mr McCausland’s feelings are expected to be made clear in the Assembly today when he makes a speech on the welfare reform upheaval — in which six key benefits are being replaced by the single Universal Credit — when it faces its first test in the Assembly.

The aim of the coalition Government’s plans to revamp the welfare system is to cut the significant burden it places on the public purse.

But the proposed changes have raised serious concerns in Northern Ireland which is expected to be hit harder than any other region of the UK because of our higher dependency on benefits.

SDLP Social Development committee member Mark H Durkan said “it can’t be denied that there are people who do abuse the system”.

“But the last thing we want is to introduce a system that is going to abuse people,” said the Foyle MLA.

“The reality is there are not a lot of job opportunities in Mr Mc Causland’s North Belfast constituency or certainly here in Foyle.

“The rationale of dealing with the cadgers or bluffers is just a ‘divide and conquer’ tactic to deflect attention away from the fact that this is going to have a great impact on vulnerable people.”

Sinn Fein is seeking support to have the entire Bill deferred but it appears likely unionists will vote the legislation through at this stage.

Meanwhile, the Stormont committee examining the detail of how the reforms will work has agreed to treble its meetings so that members can scrutinise the legislation clause by clause.

From next week the Social Development Committee will meet three times a week — at least until the end of November — to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible.

As the legislation from the Executive is put forward today, Mr McCausland will also claim the changes should lift 25,000 adults and 10,000 children in the province out of poverty.

Under the changes the Disability Living Allowance — which is claimed by almost 120,000 people in the province — will be replaced by personal independence payments (pips).

And there have been calculations that the introduction of a benefit cap — a total of £26,000 a year — should only impact on less than 1% of people in Northern Ireland.

The minister is also expected to argue the changes will make the system fairer for taxpayers who are funding it and ensure that resources are focused on those most in need.

Mr McCausland may also make clear whether Northern Ireland has been allowed any safeguards or flexibility on how the system will be run. He and DSD officials have been in negotiations with the UK Department of Work and Pensions for months.

The Social Development committee has voiced concerns that the multi-million-pound IT system coming in — said to be the most expensive in the world — will not allow the payments system to be tailored to Northern Ireland.

MLAs fear the proposal to pay benefits monthly could prove disastrous for families not good at handling their budgets.

And they have warned the plan to give the money to a nominated individual could mean the money goes mostly to men — “from purse to wallet” — which could have consequences for families with children.

Another objective of the plan, also likely to be mentioned by the minister, is to reduce the current costs of administration.

... and this is why reform is considered a priority

  • Northern Ireland’s social security system costs more than its health service.
  • The current annual bill for the province stands at £5.1bn and this is projected to soar to £6.7bn by 2018/19.
  • The welfare changes are designed to make the system less complex and less expensive to administer.
  • A universal credit will replace jobseeker's allowance, tax credits, income support, employment and support allowance and housing benefits with a single payment.
  • The aim is to help people in benefit dependency and ensure those who can, “are helped move towards work”.
  • But the changes in Disability Living Allowance are expected to hit Northern Ireland harder than any other region of the UK outside London due to the number of people receiving DLA — 118, 000 — and the higher than average number of families with children.
  • The Assembly does have devolved responsibility for social security but is constrained from setting up a different system by the ‘principle of parity’, which dictates if Northern Ireland sets up its own system, we must pick up the price tag, and by logistics — we must use the same IT system as Britain. DSD argues Northern Ireland does not have the capacity to run or fund its own social security system.
  • Welfare Reform legislation was passed in Westminster in March but the equivalent legislation from the Executive did not arrive with the relevant Stormont committee before the summer recess.
  • A report on the likely impact here — ordered by Children’s Commissioner Patricia Lewsley-Mooney — urged MLAs not to fast-track the Bill in the Assembly.
  • The Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent by March. If there is any slippage, real practical problems could emerge which could ultimately lead to delays in some people receiving benefits.

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