Unionist and nationalist MLAs are joining forces to warn of the potential impact of the welfare benefits shake-up across Northern Ireland.
Ahead of the return of the Assembly next week, representatives of both communities are sounding alarm bells over the out-working of welfare reform — which Stormont must sort out in the next term.
Apart from London, the region is to be hit hardest by the reforms because of a higher proportion of residents in receipt of Disability Living Allowance and the large number of households with children.
Stormont’s Social Development Committee is backing demands for a series of opt-outs and special measures in legislation to help alleviate the effect of the changes on hard-pressed families and individuals.
A unionist member of the Assembly committee which is to examine the extensive proposals in detail warned delays in dealing with it could have unintended consequences.
Michael Copeland said: “The halting approach taken to this will mean significantly less time to open up the legislation for scrutiny, debate and amendment.
“I think there is a war to be fought here, a war of common sense over dogma, a war against South of England cures for South of England problems being foisted on the most needy citizens of the the UK.
“We must never forget that bearing the brunt of this legislation are some of our most vulnerable citizens and that a special case must be made for Northern Ireland due to the fact we have many seriously mentally and physically damaged citizens arising from years of terrorist violence.”
The East Belfast Ulster Unionist, however, added: “I hope many of the flaws will be put right in the Assembly because Northern Ireland is unlikely to reach its maximum potential if a significant minority of the population is trapped in a cycle of poverty.”
And Sinn Fein’s Mickey Brady described the shake-up as an attempt to put ‘a square peg in a round hole’.
He pointed to reports which have shown the province has higher levels of disability, higher levels of mental illness and a comparative lack of child care infrastructure with the rest of the UK.
“The historic legacy of the conflict and the circumstances in the North need to be designed into welfare changes in the short time ahead,” the MLA added.
The Government has already been accused of dragging its feet on the issue, with the chair of the committee, Alex Maskey, accusing Secretary of State Owen Paterson of failing to demonstrate how ‘flexibility’ may be applied in NI.
“Owen Paterson has said he will provide flexibility here but I haven’t seen any yet. We have put a range of suggestions but I have yet to see a reply to any of them,” he said.
Anne McCleary, an official with the DSD, said however, it was “well aware” of concerns about many proposals in the Welfare Reform Bill, “and, in particular, those that will affect people who are deemed to be more vulnerable in our society; for example, children, the elderly or the disabled”.
- John (not his real name) is 25 and lived all his life with his granny who is now going into a home. As a joint tenant John has a legal right to become the sole tenant but will only be paid housing benefit at the rate for a single room in a shared house and cannot afford to make up the difference.
It is therefore likely he will become homeless from his own home — and could cost the state more in the long term.
- Young mother Charlotte (who also asked not to be identified) has been given a substantial award in terms of Disability Living Allowance, after a lengthy tussle.
The high rate mobility and high rate care awards were the result of an appeal for her four-year-old child who suffers from crippling arthritis.
“(It) reinforced my faith in the system and in ability of justice to sometimes triumph,” said UUP MLA Michael Copeland.