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Welfare reform splits MLAs: Assembly rejects vote opposing welfare reform... and also one supporting it

By Noel McAdam

Stormont's deadlock over the introduction of welfare reforms has intensified with MLAs split down the middle.

On two knife-edge votes, MLAs rejected both a motion calling on the Executive to oppose the changes and an amendment insisting they should be implemented to avoid cuts to Northern Ireland's Block Grant.

SDLP members supported a Sinn Fein motion voicing "deep concern" over the "disastrous" impact of welfare cuts in Britain and demanding the Executive opposes "the Tory cuts agenda".

Alliance backed a DUP amendment which, while acknowledging the "negative elements" of the reforms, argued the amended package of changes for Northern Ireland should be implemented.

Ulster Unionists, meanwhile, voted against both the motion and the amendment – but challenged Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland to bring forward the welfare reform legislation to the Assembly.

Their failure to support either side of the argument brought sharp criticism from the DUP, but the UU insisted yesterday's showpiece debate had been a "waste of time".

Ahead of a special Executive 'away day', Sinn Fein attempted to shift the focus to its argument that the reforms which remain in limbo here are not working in Britain.

But the DUP amendment said implementation was preferred to avoid "the unsustainable cost of opting out of welfare reform, which will impact on public services and hit the most most vulnerable in society, including low-income families, the disabled and unemployed".

Opening the debate, SF's Alex Maskey said, however: "Our battle on this matter is not with the DUP or any other party in this house, but with the Tory millionaires in Westminster.

"In this day and age, the need for food banks should be a badge of shame for any government.

"We have been badgered to support this, but it is a pretext for cuts and our programme for government requires us to reduce levels of poverty."

DUP's Sammy Wilson said: "Having listened to the tired arguments of Sinn Fein repeated once again, it is quite clear that SF have no policy other than to hurt people who need public services.

"What are SF going to do? The money will come out of our budget by someone sitting at a keyboard in the Treasury and changing the amount of money available to the Executive for spending in Northern Ireland. It is palpable nonsense."

The SDLP's Dolores Kelly, supporting the motion, said: "We are totally opposed to the introduction of these punitive cuts.

"We are not opposed to welfare reform of itself, but these are cuts masquerading as reform."

Ulster Unionist Michael Copeland said: "This is a row between the DUP and SF. When you bring us the legislation we will tell you what we think. (This) debate serves no purpose."

Stewart Dickson of the Alliance Party, supporting the amendment, argued: "We have no particular appetite for the full force of the reforms but we also recognise where our Block Grant comes from which Sinn Fein fails to understand." Green Party leader Steven Agnew said the result of both the motion and amendment was spending cuts, which are already underway following the last monitoring round.

"It's which way we hit the poorest hardest," he said.

What's in the deal?

Universal Credit Payment

Universal Credit is a 'super' benefit which will replace six of our existing benefits including Jobseekers Allowance, Tax credits and Income support and Housing Benefit.

In Britain: It will normally be paid monthly into a single bank account per household. Both members of a couple must sign a Claimant Commitment, which specifies what each must do to find work, and if one refuses to do so the whole claim falls.

Under the deal: All claimants will receive fortnightly payments. There can be split payments to each partner with a higher proportion given to the main carer where there are children. If one partner refuses to sign or honour the Commitment the other still gets paid. This is designed to help budgeting and protect mothers and children.

Transitional Protection

In Britain: When all the six other benefits are wrapped into Universal Credit, the Westminster government's aim is to save money, but there will be winners as well as losers.

In Northern Ireland it is estimated that more than 102,000 households will gain from the change, 99,000 will stay roughly the same, and 86,000 would lose out if the British proposals remained unchanged.

Under the deal: There would be no losers among existing claimants. They would be protected from any drop in monthly income through payments from a transitional fund which lasts until 2019. New claimants would go straight into the British system and existing claimants could be put out of the transitional system if their circumstances change significantly, for instance if they become ineligible for Universal Credit altogether.

Bedroom tax officially under occupancy restriction

In Britain: Under the notorious Clause 69 of the Welfare Reform Bill, working-age claimants will have their benefit cut if they have more bedrooms in their home than the authorities believe they need. This would hit hard in Northern Ireland because we don't have enough one and two-bedroom homes for people to move to.

Under the deal: We would soften the blow. A new fund of £16.2m in 2014/15, moving to £17.3m by 2018/19, would be used to protect current tenants for any reduction in the Housing Benefit for their existing tenancies until they are offered suitable alternative accommodation. In exceptional circumstances there will also be protection for new tenants until suitable accommodation is available through the existing Discretionary Housing Payment arrangements.

Direct payment of universal credit to landlords

In Britain: The housing element of Universal Credit for social and private sector tenants will be paid directly to the benefit claimant with payments made directly to landlords only in exceptional circumstances.

Under the deal: Payments would normally be paid directly to landlords, though tenants could ask to opt out. This arrangement would make claimants more attractive as tenants because it removes the danger that they will default on rent and should make it easier for them to rent property.

OTHER MEASURES UNDER THE DEAL

The maximum period for which people could be cut off benefits, for instance for making false declarations or repeatedly refusing employment, would be reduced from three to two years.

There would be a £6m fund to protect claimants from having to pay for medical reports.

What the deal would cost

We must cover these extra payments by cutting other budgets or raising taxes. We would also have to pay London to change its new computer systems to accommodate our special payments. The more we diverge from Britain, the higher the bill. And if we change too much, London would ask us to set up our own IT system at an estimated cost of £1.8bn. The estimated cost of the deal on universal credit alone would be £8.5m in the first year and £5.4m in subsequent years. The higher charge in the first year is down to computer and IT development.

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