Belfast Telegraph

Welfare talks heating up: Bid to wring concessions in London over benefits shake-up

By Noel McAdam

Crunch negotiations between Stormont and the coalition Government on the massive benefits shake-up are expected to come to a head in the next few weeks.

And failure to win concessions on how the new framework will operate in Northern Ireland will hit thousands of already hard-pressed and vulnerable families.

MLAs from all parties in the Assembly are pushing for special safeguards for the province, including:

  • Housing benefit paid directly to landlords.
  • Fortnightly rather than monthly payments.
  • Split payments rather than to a ‘nominated individual’.

But Sinn Fein, which lost the 10-hour Assembly debate on a call to defer the legislation, yesterday warned there is no guarantee that Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers will grant the opt outs being sought for Northern Ireland.

Alex Maskey, chair of the Assembly’s social development committee, said: “We have had month after month of meetings and David Freud (adviser to the Department of Work and Pensions in London) telling us ‘we feel your pain’, but they have not yet agreed to anything and there is no guarantee they will.

“People can be as sympathetic as they like but unless they are prepared to take some action to help and actually agree it is not much use.”

Uncertainty has also emerged over whether the multi-million-pound IT system to administer the new universal credit will provide regional flexibility.

But Mr Maskey said: “That’s all very well. Lord Freud told us in January the IT could cope with the flexibility we need and our view is that it is not the computer which tells politicians what they can do. They (politicians) set the policy.”

MLAs across all parties want the new housing benefit to continue to be paid directly to landlords. But in Britain the situation is almost exactly the opposite to Northern Ireland, where 80% of those in receipt opt for direct payments.

The Stormont committee has also urged that payments are made at least fortnightly — though the proposal of the coalition Government at Westminster is for monthly payments.

And there are concerns over plans for a ‘nominated individual’ to receive the taxpayer-funded money, because in practice in many cases here that will be the male ‘head of the household’.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland is to meet Lord Freud next week and Sinn Fein is sending a delegation to meet Lord Freud on October 22.

What now?

Just 10 hours after a protracted Assembly debate threw out Sinn Fein’s deferral demand, MLAs were yesterday back examining the legislation in detail.

The first ‘extra’ meeting of the social development committee was supposed to deal with the first 44 clauses of the universal credit section of the legislation, but only got to 30.

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