Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland won’t get special treatment in the benefits ‘big bang’

By Lisa Smyth

The minister in charge of the benefits system in Northern Ireland has criticised plans to reform the UK welfare system, but admitted it would be “thoughtless folly” to break ranks with Westminster.

Although Alex Attwood expressed concerns over proposals to overhaul the benefits system, he said he has so far failed to convince his Westminster colleagues to give Northern Ireland special dispensation.

He accused Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith of ignoring the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland but stressed he will continue to press the Government on the matter.

Mr Duncan Smith plans to bring in a single universal credit to replace work-related benefits, such as income support, carer’s allowance and child tax credit.

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, universal credit will improve the transition between unemployment and work and reduce administration by cutting the number of different benefits and delivery agencies.

Claimants moving into work will keep more of their income than now, but face losing benefits if they refuse a job.

But Mr Attwood has argued it would be unfair to implement such a strict regime in Northern Ireland, which is facing the possibility of massive job losses in the public sector.

While he said the department has given an assurance that the amount of money paid in benefits will not be cut, he said he did not know enough detail of the plans to confirm this.

He said: “Slashing benefits and presenting it as reform, that isn’t reform, it is going back to the failed politics of the past and the policies of Thatcher.

“I don’t believe you get people back into work by demoralising and demonising them.

“I have very real concerns about the plans. If you speak to previous ministers they would say best practice for reform of welfare should be done incrementally, and the ‘big bang’ approach is actually a way that leaves you with lots of issues.

“I have spoken to Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud and they have recognised the special circumstances in Northern Ireland, but they don’t do anything about it, which shows a very dogmatic approach.

“I want to look at the issue of parity. I will try to maximise any flexibility, but it would be thoughtless folly to walk away from parity given that billions of pounds come across the Irish Sea from London.”

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