Executive ignores welfare elephant in room
Published 14/02/2014 | 10:30
It might be one of the most urgent and expensive issues facing Northern Ireland, but welfare reform was not even on the agenda at yesterday's Executive meeting.
Despite a dramatic warning from Finance Minister Simon Hamilton that delays on taking decisions could cost Stormont an incredible £1bn by 2019, it was not even mentioned on the Executive's list of priorities.
The minister said it "is imperative that the delay on welfare reform is brought to a conclusion at the next Executive".
But yesterday one of the biggest challenges facing the minister was dealt with under 'any other business', with no discussion and no decision being taken.
In his letter to ministers at the end of last month, Mr Hamilton stated that £15m had already been lost from the budget as a result of dithering in the first three months of this year.
Those lost millions are the cost to Northern Ireland in Treasury penalties for not matching Westminster's cost-cutting reforms to welfare entitlements in England.
Mr Hamilton also predicted that nearly 1,500 Civil Service jobs in Belfast and Londonderry – where local civil servants admister some benefits for England –would be lost if Northern Ireland did not fall into the line with the UK benefits system.
The Finance Minister's figures were quickly dismissed as "fantasy" by Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein.
"This is scaremongering by the DUP and the cost to the Executive and job losses quoted is disgraceful," he said.
With no consensus, the impasse is set to continue.
Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, who is responsible for welfare benefits, repeated some of Mr Hamilton's assertions at the end of the meeting and said he needed a decision soon.