Belfast Telegraph

David Trimble: let London rule on reform of Northern Ireland welfare benefits

By Nicholas Randall

Westminster should remove the Northern Ireland Assembly's powers over welfare benefits, former first minister Lord Trimble has said.

The Northern Ireland Executive was warned last month that delays in implementing welfare reforms introduced in Westminster could cost the province £5m a month by early next year.

Tens of millions of pounds may need to be found from elsewhere in the Executive budget if the block grant from London is cut to compensate for a failure to deliver savings on the cost of benefits, work and pensions, said minister Mike Penning.

The DUP and Sinn Fein remain at loggerheads over implementing the State benefits shake-up.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland has blamed Sinn Fein – whose agreement is needed – for stalling moves to bring forward a Bill to implement reform.

Sinn Fein has said it will not be rushed into accepting something it believes will take £450m out of the pockets of vulnerable people.

Lord Trimble warned failure to accept "parity" with Great Britain and stick to Westminster policies on welfare would open a Pandora's box.

He said: "I do not have to remind people in Northern Ireland that parity was hard won and is of huge importance.

"I would say to those in Belfast who are seeking regional variation on this, that they have to bear in mind the consequences that would flow from it.

"If the door is open to regional variation, it could be a two-way street and it could apply to other things as well – what comes to mind is things like public sector pensions and pay.

"I would suggest to the Northern Ireland Assembly that they should close this Pandora's box."

Lord Trimble, who was first minister in two spells between 1998 and 2003 as an Ulster Unionist, sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer.

In the second reading debate on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, he said welfare was not devolved in Scotland and Wales and although the "anomaly" could be tolerated if Northern Ireland stuck to parity, now it had departed from that, the matter "should be addressed properly".

He said if there was legislation to bring the power back to Westminster, he doubted that there would be "serious opposition at Stormont".

FACTFILE

Last month, Minister Mike Penning warned that Stormont's failure to implement welfare reforms will mean a £200m cut in Northern Ireland's annual Westminster grant by 2015.

He also warned that a £5m-a-month reduction will kick in from January.

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