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Peter Robinson's stark message to all parties on welfare vote: It's our last chance to avert meltdown

EXCLUSIVE: What happens at Stormont on Tuesday will touch us all... decision time has arrived

By Peter Robinson

Published 22/05/2015

DUP leader Peter Robinson
DUP leader Peter Robinson

Next Tuesday Assembly Members will take decisions that will determine the future of the Assembly, the extent of cuts to public services and whether those on welfare will receive payments reduced to the same level as those in Great Britain or whether they will receive enhanced top-up amounts as part of the Northern Ireland Welfare Bill.

My colleague Mervyn Storey, the DSD Minister, has provided parties with a paper setting out how we would enhance the welfare system in Northern Ireland.

Existing claimants would receive the same level of payments as at present for the next three years and a fund would be set up to provide support for future claimants for the same three-year period.

The situation would be subject to a review at that stage. This offers the best welfare arrangement anywhere in the United Kingdom.

For three years Sinn Fein has refused to honour agreements on welfare reform. Their foot-dragging has cost us all over £200m in penalties so far. That is £9.5m per month, and to put that in context, we could have delivered 1,800 hip replacements for £9.5m.

That money has already been taken out of vital front line public services - the very services that the most vulnerable people in our community need and rely upon. Next week Sinn Fein will run out of road.

Next Friday Finance Minister Arlene Foster, in meeting her legal duties, is required to publish her budget proposals for the remainder of the year.

The budget is the mechanism whereby legal authority is given for the spending used by our government departments and agencies. As things stand, because Sinn Fein has blocked the passage of the Welfare Bill, £604m of cuts would have to be made from health, education, justice and other essential services in order to produce a balanced budget. I am not prepared to support a budget that would impose such swingeing cuts on the people of Northern Ireland. This level of cuts, on top of those already levied, would cause grief and bring an unacceptable risk to community safety.

This grave situation can be avoided if Assembly Members pass the Welfare Bill.

So, let's be clear, if the Bill does not pass and the Executive and Assembly does not approve the budget with £604m of cuts then the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance and Personnel has a legal duty to issue a budget based on levels set down in law and which give him no discretion.

The cuts required in this scenario would be £2.8bn. It is unthinkable that our public services could operate with such a colossal level of reductions.

In these circumstances it is inconceivable that the head of the Civil Service would do anything other than immediately visit Whitehall to inform them that Northern Ireland departments would breach their spending limits.

The Assembly could not survive such a scenario.

Of course the DUP and other sensible Assembly parties would call on the Government to legislate on welfare matters. However, you can be certain that those who caused the crisis would, in the same reckless and irresponsible manner, seek to block the Government from rescuing the situation in this way.

Such behaviour would force the Government to resume direct rule.

An Assembly election would not solve the underlying problem and an Executive would not be set up without the welfare issue being resolved.

Perhaps more importantly for those who rely on welfare payments if the Bill falls then all those receiving welfare assistance will be subjected to the same system as in Great Britain, which is harsher and which will ensure more suffer as a consequence.

Even if the power to deal with welfare were returned to the Assembly in the future there would be no legal mechanism to make the enhanced top-up welfare payments. A new Bill would be required which would take at least two years to become law.

So what happens at Stormont on Tuesday will touch us all. The stakes could not be higher.

Your Assembly Member can vote to give Northern Ireland the best welfare package in the UK and ensure our public services are spared severe spending cuts.

Alternatively, your MLA can vote to trigger massive cuts in vital public services leading to a collapse of the Assembly and ensuring welfare recipients are denied any enhancement and are condemned to receive the lower GB benefit levels.

Decision time has arrived.

You should have your say, encourage your Assembly Member to vote the right way and back the Bill.

Belfast Telegraph

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