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Welfare reforms set for Northern Ireland rollout in early 2016

Published 01/12/2015

Work and Pensions Minister Priti Patel said it is the Government's intention to introduce the regulations in the early new year
Work and Pensions Minister Priti Patel said it is the Government's intention to introduce the regulations in the early new year

Welfare reforms will roll out in Northern Ireland early in 2016, the Government has said.

Following major political rows in the region, new powers allowing Westminster to implement universal credit and other welfare changes were rushed through the Commons last week.

The changes to the law, agreed in advance by Northern Ireland's political parties to end a stalemate at Stormont, are due to be implemented by a statutory instrument considered by MPs in a late night Commons session.

The deal over welfare reforms was aimed at resolving a stand off over Northern Ireland's budget.

Outlining the change, Work and Pensions Minister Priti Patel said: " The order will ensure the people of Northern Ireland can benefit from the radical programme of welfare reforms enabled by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 in Great Britain.

"That landmark act ushered in a new welfare contract with the British people. It said to those who are able to work, that work will always pay. It said to the most vulnerable in society we will continue to provide you with the support you need.

"And it said to the taxpayer your hard earned money will be spent responsibly."

She added: "Rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy to meet the challenges of today's global economy is tackling, rightfully these challenges and creating jobs.

"Economic reforms such as the proposed corporation tax reduction will be vital. But economic reforms alone will not create a more prosperous society.

"We must ensure people are incentivised and supported to take advantage of the opportunities economic growth can create. Improved incentives are at the heart of universal credit - that is what the order does."

Ms Patel said: "Our intention is to introduce the regulations in the early new year, working with colleagues in Northern Ireland. Implementation of the changes will be for the Northern Ireland Executive to take forward."

Shadow minister Emily Thornberry backed the motion despite concerns about the welfare reforms themselves.

She said: "On more than one occasion this year it appeared there was a genuine risk not just that the devolution settlement might collapse but that we might see a return to direct rule for the first time in almost a decade.

"Whatever their disagreements, it has always been clear none of the parties wanted that.

"My hope is today marks the end of a difficult process which none of us want to see repeated."

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: "We have made our position on this abundantly clear on many, many occasions.

"It is entirely regrettable the role and responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly has been eroded and undermined by the Government, the DUP and by Sinn Fein.

"It is not clear to me whether Sinn Fein and the DUP did not realise the implications of locking into this Welfare Reform and Work Bill in the legislative consent motion or whether they didn't care.

"But the situation is we are at where we are at."

Meanwhile, Nigel Dodds, the Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, stressed the importance of the Fresh Start agreement, which included the welfare reform issue, because "without it Northern Ireland would have gone backwards".

"We would have been effectively back into direct rule," he said.

He also reminded the House the changes were being made with the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, telling MPs: "This is not an undemocratic process".

"The principle of devolution has been preserved," he said.

"The integrity of the Northern Ireland Assembly's right to legislate on this matter has been specifically preserved and this is with the consent of the Assembly under a legislative consent motion."

But Mr Dodds did admit he would have preferred the welfare measures to have been dealt with by the Assembly.

He said: "We would prefer that this had gone through the Assembly, of course we would, but we faced up to the reality that if we had gone on the way we were we would have ended up causing the people that we want to protect most to suffer."

Mr Dodds thanked the Government for the "expeditious way" in which the Bill has been progressed.

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