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We won't be forced into false deadline on welfare reform, says Alasdair McDonnell as SDLP looks to wring late concessions

By Liam Clarke

Published 23/05/2015

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has warned his party will not be bounced into an artificial deadline on welfare reform.

The party's 14 MLAs have signed a petition of concern on the measure which is due to be debated at Stormont next Tuesday.

Combined with the 28 signatures already collected by Sinn Fein in a separate petition, the SDLP move means it is highly likely the welfare reform bill will be blocked.

However, senior party sources say they will withdraw their position of concern if they get concessions on amendments to the welfare bill.

These amendments were defeated by Sinn Fein and the DUP at the consideration stage of the Welfare Reform Bill in February.

One SDLP MLA described a meeting of their assembly group yesterday morning at which it was discussed. "It was a long and productive meeting. We held to an agreed position in what is going to be difficult negotiations which will run right up the wire next Tuesday."

He added: "There isn't necessarily anything that would be that costly. Independent advice for claimants, sorted disqualification periods and things like that but more money would be welcome."

The party leader met Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, and then reported to the MLAs' meeting that nothing of substance had emerged. "The meeting was minded to back a petition of concern if there is no improvement" the MLA said

He added an SDLP petition of concern had now been tabled with the support of the party's 14 Assembly members and he was inviting other parties to support its long term, principled approach to welfare.

This is a poser for Sinn Fein who have a petition of their own, but each needs the support of the other to get the 30 signatures necessary. If they have that the bill cannot pass without a majority of nationalists as well as unionists supporting it, which is impossible once the petition is signed.

Dr McDonnell said: "The SDLP remains committed to negotiating with the Executive parties and the Government on the Welfare Reform Bill. There needs to be a mature negotiation. DUP 'stand and deliver' politics is ill-judged and ill-timed."

But DUP leader Peter Robinson responded by insisting that next week's debate would proceed. He has already warned that the Stormont institutions could collapse if the welfare bill is not passed on Tuesday.

Last night Mr Robinson said: "Contrary to the comment in the SDLP's U-turn statement this is not an artificial deadline. If they had the least knowledge of the statutory budgetary timetable, they would know that next week is the deadline.

"Welfare recipients in Northern Ireland need to know that their welfare payments will not be enhanced if Sinn Fein and the SDLP together submit a petition of concern and vote against the Bill. Nothing in the SDLP's actions changes the legal timeframe. The budget still looms with Sinn Fein and the SDLP indicating that they will do nothing to avoid £600m of cuts to our public services."

He added: "On Wednesday, I challenged those who were dissatisfied with the proposal published by the DSD Minister to bring forward any amendment that was legally competent, operationally doable and financially within the agreed spending envelope.

"I said the DUP would accept such an amendment. Not one party, in the three days that followed, has brought forward a single amendment. This demonstrates that there is no alternative to the minister's proposal. Tuesday's debate shall proceed."

Meanwhile, there has been a war of words between Sinn Fein and the DUP over statistics. Sinn Fein's Daithai McKay called upon Arlene Foster, the Finance Minister, to appear before the Finance Committee to explain herself. She claimed that if we did not complete Welfare Reform and balance our books we would not have the power to spend EU and other grants.

Mr McKay called this "scaremongering", adding: "The Finance Committee previously looked at this issue in 2012. After receiving representation and advice many of its members were of the view that these monies could be spent in the absence of a budget bill. The bill in question merely sets a limit on the spending. It is clear that Arlene Foster is using her department to engage in scaremongering over this important issue."

However, a DUP spokesman denied this. He said that the figures were drawn up by civil servants, not politicians.

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