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Stormont impasse threatens Northern Ireland benefits deal, expert warns

 

By David Gordon

The Stormont power-sharing stalemate jeopardises work to protect vulnerable people from benefit cuts.

So says the expert who helped Sinn Fein and the DUP resolve the welfare reform stalemate - the issue at the heart of a previous devolution crisis at Stormont. Writing for today's Belfast Telegraph, Professor Eileen Evason highlights looming policy challenges on benefits and warns that "it is difficult to see how progress can be made without resolution of the current political impasse".

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She also states that welfare reform mitigations put in place under the NI Executive were "far in advance of what has been secured by other devolved governments".

The comments come with talks continuing to restore a functioning Executive at Stormont. There is currently no budget in place and no Ministers in post.

Concerns have been voiced across a range of key policy issues on the impact of the continuing Government limbo.

Sinn Fein yesterday called for a fresh election if the Stormont talks fail to reach a breakthrough by this Friday.

Professor Evason led a working group set up to chart a way through the welfare reform stalemate that came very close to paralysing devolution in 2015.

Its January 2016 report mapped out a four-year £500m mitigations package to cushion the local impact of benefit cuts introduced by David Cameron's Conservative government.

That package is due to be reviewed in 2018/19, and the situation has been further complicated by more recent controversial welfare changes.

In today's article, Professor Evason writes: "We need to start thinking now about which parts of the package should be retained and whether we can help those affected by cuts made since our report: most obviously the implementation of the so-called 2 child policy, cuts to Employment & Support Allowance and the severe limitation in support for widowed parents which is now being put in place.

"I have no doubt that those working with the most vulnerable in our society are anxious to move forward but here, as is the case on so many issues, it is difficult to see how progress can be made without resolution of the current political impasse."

The article also sets out the thinking behind the £500m mitigation scheme, and stresses the importance of a dedicated welfare reform advice service established in Northern Ireland.

It states: "I am very aware of all of the hard work by the Department, the advice sector and the voluntary and community sectors to put all of this in place.

"What we have, limited as it is, is far in advance of what has been secured by other devolved governments and demonstrates what can be achieved through devolution when people work together. I am also very aware of the high level of social need that continues to scar so many households and communities and is most evident in the growing reliance on food banks."

Last week, former health service chief John Compton warned on the implications of the Stormont stalemate for pressing reform and budget pressures in health and social care.

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