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Thousands of families would be hit by a cap on Northern Ireland benefits

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 26/08/2015

Some 22,000 Northern Ireland households receive welfare handouts of more than £20,000 - the new benefits cap planned by Westminster
Some 22,000 Northern Ireland households receive welfare handouts of more than £20,000 - the new benefits cap planned by Westminster

Some 22,000 Northern Ireland households receive welfare handouts of more than £20,000 - the new benefits cap planned by Westminster.

Around 3,200 of them would be affected if George Osborne presses ahead with plans set out in last month's Budget.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a benefits cap.

It means that, unlike other regions, there is no set limit to what one household can claim in a year.

Under the Welfare Reform Bill, the current UK cap of £26,000 will be extended here.

However, Mr Osborne intends to further cut the cap to £20,000 outside London.

Although welfare is a devolved matter, it is highly likely the Assembly would be expected to follow Westminster's lead - or pay the balance.

Figures seen by this newspaper show there are 22,100 working age households in Northern Ireland receiving benefits in excess of £20,000 a year.

That is the equivalent of a pre-tax salary of almost £25,000. The average wage here is around £22,000.

However, an analysis of claimants estimates that just 3,200 households would be affected by a £20,000 benefits cap.

The remainder claim benefits which are exempt from the cap, such as Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or working tax credits.

The figures are detailed in papers released by the Department for Social Development under the Freedom of Information Act. Attempts to introduce a benefits cap here have proved highly contentious.

Agreement on welfare reform was reached at the end of 2014, and formed a key plank of the Stormont House Agreement.

However, the reforms hit a stumbling block in March after Sinn Fein pulled its support hours before a final Assembly debate.

The impasse has yet to be resolved, leading to doubts over the future of the devolved institutions.

The Conservative Party's Northern Ireland wing said capping benefits was the right thing to do.

Neil Wilson of NI Conservatives said even a £26,000 cap is still well above the average wage.

"The capping of benefits is popular, with 73% support across the UK," he said.

"Every day people who are not well off tell me that they're sick and tired of those who have played the system their whole lives being able to afford better lifestyles than they can.

"It is of paramount importance that Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Greens abandon their reckless and unfair blocking of welfare reform which currently ensures households can earn over £4,000 a year more in benefits than the average wage here.

"In the interests of fairness to working people and to those trapped in a cycle of welfare dependency, capping benefits is the right thing to do."

However, Sinn Fein pledged to resist any further austerity drive from London.

West Tyrone MLA Michaela Boyle said: "Reducing the benefit cap to £20,000 in the North would increase hardship for large families and drive more children deeper into poverty.

"It is yet another attack on the poor by a Cabinet of Tory millionaires with no concept of what it is like to try to survive on benefits.

"This is another clear example of the Tories rushing to punish the poor and most vulnerable for the greed of the financiers and the bankers through devastating welfare cuts.

"Sinn Féin is totally opposed to these proposed welfare cuts."

Earlier this year the Belfast Telegraph reported how some families are picking up almost £60,000 a year in benefits.

Ten households share £567,000 annually in State handouts - £56,700 each on average.

A worker in full-time employment would need to be earning £85,000 before tax to take home the same amount.

Facts and figures

£26,000: The cap on welfare in Britain which could be brought in here

22,100: Number of households here receiving benefits in excess of £20k a year

3,200: Number of households that would be affected by a £20k benefits cap

73%: Percentage of people the Tories claim support a cap on State handouts

Belfast Telegraph

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