Belfast Telegraph

Clergy speak out on welfare reforms

By Lesley Houston

The leaders of the four main churches in Northern Ireland are to take their concerns that families here will be badly hit by welfare reforms directly to the minister overseeing the proposals.

The delegation, understood to include Presbyterian Moderator Ivan Patterson, leader of the Church of Ireland, Archbishop Alan Harper, Cardinal Sean Brady and Methodist President Ian Henderson, are expected to meet with Lord Freud at Westminster on Monday to highlight the levels of poverty they fear families will fall into as a result of the reforms.

The clergymen are thought to be hopeful of gaining some concessions, considering the fact that many analysts agree Northern Ireland would be the worst affected of all the UK regions.

Up to £500m could be sliced off Northern Ireland's £4.8bn welfare bill if the reforms take place.

A number of amendments within the Welfare Reform Bill, including proposals to replace Disability Living Allowance, are due to be debated at Westminster on Monday.

The visit by the churchmen follows the signing of an open letter last month by 18 Church of England bishops which criticised the plans to change the system.

The English bishops said the cap could be “profoundly unjust” to the poorest families and they have a “moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice”.

Their concerns are echoed by the local church leaders who have already brought their concerns to the Secretary of State when they warned him last month that Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable would be pushed to the limit.

“We are deeply concerned the Welfare Bill will push more children, families, older people and those with genuine health care needs into precarious levels of poverty,” they told Mr Patterson.

Fears that Northern Ireland would be worst hit by cuts stem from the introduction of the Universal Credit in 2013 which would see poor families with both partners working as the biggest losers under the new system.

Those are among the issues of a major study of the reforms by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) unveiled yesterday at the AGM of the Belfast Law Centre.

James Browne, an economist at the IFS, said: “Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of its population claiming Disability Living Allowance, who will be adversely affected by welfare reform.

“These are the key drivers behind the greater average impact in Northern Ireland,” he said.

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