Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Welfare Bill passes second stage

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland urged caution as he opened a Stormont debate on welfare reforms

Controversial welfare reform proposals for Northern Ireland have cleared a crucial Assembly hurdle after a marathon debate at Stormont.

The second stage of the Welfare Reform Bill was passed in a late-night vote in the face of strong opposition from Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

The Bill, if enacted, will implement changes to the benefits system similar to those in England and Wales.

All parties in Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive raised concerns over the legislation but they clashed over how to achieve changes.

Sinn Fein wanted to defer introducing the measures pending further negotiations with the coalition Government in London.

But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) warned that any delay to the legislative timetable would have had disastrous consequences, claiming that breaking so-called parity with the rest of the UK would cost the executive hundreds of millions of pounds.

The DUP said changes, within the terms of parity, could be obtained at the Bill's next Assembly stage - when it is scrutinised by a Stormont committee - without the need to kill the legislation outright.

Aimed at getting more people off benefits and into work, the Bill would see the introduction of a universal credit to cover a range of existing benefits, a personal independence payment - reassessed every three years - to replace disability living allowance - and housing benefit reforms.

A Sinn Fein amendment calling for a deferral was defeated in the Assembly, 60 votes to 42, after a debate that started on Tuesday morning and continued past midnight.

The unamended Bill was voted through to the committee stage by the same margin. Sinn Fein did not opt to lodge a so-called Petition of Concern.

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