Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein and DUP clash on welfare

Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration sustained another blow today amid a pre-election stand-off over welfare reform between its two leading politicians.

Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists are at loggerheads about changes to Government support for the less well-off.

First Minister Peter Robinson has accused Martin McGuinness of failing to deliver on a deal agreed last May but his deputy said he had went too far and made a big mistake.

Reforms advocated by Westminster include a new universal credit payment to replace child tax credit and housing benefit, and measures dubbed a "bedroom tax" by opponents. But the legislation is still being considered at Stormont.

Mr McGuinness said: "We are the only party standing up for the poor and the vulnerable from all communities on the issue of welfare cuts.

"Peter Robinson never offered one word of support for a rethink on welfare cuts and the only support I received was from my Scottish colleagues."

Differences are also emerging in the coalition over welfare. Labour is committed to reversing the reform if it wins power in 2015.

In Ireland, Sinn Fein is committed to opposing so-called austerity on both sides of the border.

But the Democratic Unionists have accused republicans of failing to face up to reality and risking running up a massive bill in fines from Westminster and extra information technology costs if Northern Ireland's policy differs from that in England and Wales.

Mr Robinson has suggested welfare powers could be returned to Westminster if no solution is found.

He said the money for continuing existing provision was already gone and told the BBC: "There are people who are waiting for new cancer drugs, people waiting for hip replacements, nurses, doctors and teachers, all will be affected because of the failure to face up to a reality that we need to live with the amount of money that is in our budget and you simply cannot operate in government on that basis."

The welfare reform bill, if implemented, would largely bring in measures already introduced elsewhere in the UK.

Sinn Fein and the nationalist SDLP are refusing to support it.

DUP finance minister Simon Hamilton has claimed failure to introduce changes could cost the devolved Executive £1 billion in fines over five years and imperil 1,500 jobs.

It is only the latest dispute to affect Northern Ireland's power-sharing partners.

Plans to build a peace and reconciliation centre on the site of a former paramilitary prison were dropped amid unionist concern about alleged republican "glorification" of violence while talks on outstanding peace process issues like contentious parades, flags and dealing with past killings ended without agreement.

In Westminster, welfare reform has also proved controversial.

Families with only one spare room should be let off the so-called bedroom tax, a senior Liberal Democrat has suggested - warning ministers they "just can't ignore the social consequences" of the policy.

Party president Tim Farron said the change should be seriously considered as part of a review of the move to reduce housing benefit payments from social tenants deemed to have a larger home than they need.

A cross-party Commons committee earlier published a highly-critical assessment of the existing policy which found that disabled people are suffering "severe financial hardship and distress" as a direct result.

The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee found that the "bedroom tax" had hit vulnerable people who were not the intended targets of the reform and have little hope of moving to a smaller property,

The committee voted down a proposal from Labour MP Sheila Gilmore to call for the policy to be scrapped, but it did urge ministers to exempt anyone whose home has been adapted to help them with their disability, as well as any household containing a claimant receiving disability benefits at the higher level.

The Tories have pledged to make work pay as part of wider belt-tightening in public spending.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions assistant general secretary Peter Bunting said: "There is nothing an autocrat enjoys more than a divided opposition.

"The political parties in Stormont have allowed themselves to be split along sectarian lines on welfare reform, when this process is an insidious assault on the most vulnerable regardless of their faith or ethnicity.

"Iain Duncan Smith does not care if his victims are nationalist or unionist."

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