Belfast Telegraph

Welfare deal looks likely, but without any extra money

By Liam Clarke

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are working on a solution to the welfare reform crisis which involves no extra money, but instead spending existing funds in three years instead of six.

Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, will fly into Northern Ireland later this week after the budget debate. She hopes to chair a meeting which will formalise the agreement on Thursday.

Negotiations are still going on in a bid to prevent the welfare reform crisis bankrupting Stormont and destroying powersharing.

The impasse emerged last Monday when Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Greens joined forces to block the introduction of a new UK welfare system here.

Although the proposed solution to the crisis still involves an increase in welfare spending it will be less expensive than the current system still in use here. If we don't make the change, we have to pay back the excess to the Treasury in "fines" deducted from our block grant.

In the Stormont House Agreement the Executive set aside £564m to help people who would lose out as a result of the new system, but the overall benefits spend will be well down.

On Monday of last week Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein unexpectedly withdrew his party's support just three days after praising what they had achieved on the issue in a speech to his party's Ard Fheis.

He accused the DUP of going back on commitments to protect the vulnerable and Mr Robinson called him "dishonourable" for changing his mind after reaching agreement.

In a Belfast Telegraph article Mr McGuinness accused the DUP of withholding papers from him but they deny this and counter by saying that the Stormont House Agreement was simple enough for anyone to understand.

Almost as soon as the row had blown up the parties started trying to wind it down.

The new solution being worked on by the parties and by civil servants does not involve substantial additional resources. One person who had been briefed on developments said: "It is still being worked on but broadly there will be some adjustment to the regulations for payments and that would be reviewed in three years' time."

Last night Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein said: "Both teams are continuing to make progress towards a deal."

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