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We'll be straight about impact of welfare reform - officials

Published 22/09/2016

Green Party leader Steven Agnew wanted to know if there was any appetite for a change of direction in the event of a negative outcome on welfare reform
Green Party leader Steven Agnew wanted to know if there was any appetite for a change of direction in the event of a negative outcome on welfare reform

There will be no attempt to spin the impact of welfare reform, MLAs have been told.

Assurances were offered when senior officials from the Department for Communities (DfC) appeared before a Stormont scrutiny committee in Belfast.

Tommy O'Reilly, DfC deputy secretary, said: "There is a commitment that, whatever the impact of welfare reform is, we will put it out and publish it.

"So there's no attempt to hide the figures."

An estimated 765,800 households are expected to be affected by welfare reforms agreed as part of last year's Fresh Start Agreement.

More than £500 million has also been set aside for mitigation top-up payments over the next four years, with a review in 2018/19.

Some of the reforms such as the employment and social allowance, which replaces incapacity benefit, will be rolled out from November, while o ther changes such as universal credit - which merges j obseeker's allowance and income support - do not take effect until next year.

MLAs, who convened at the Ulster University Belfast's campus, were briefed on how officials plan to gauge the reality of the changes.

The results will feed into Government policy and help advise ministers, they were told.

However, Green Party leader Steven Agnew questioned the value of the process, asking if there was any appetite for a change of direction in the event of a negative outcome.

He said: "If it turns out that taking £200 million out makes people worse off are we going to revert back?

"If there's no genuine openness, why are we spending what seems like a lot of time and effort evaluating policy?"

Sinn Fein MLA Fra McCann said action should be taken to prevent any repeat of the "disastrous implications" of some reform in other parts of the UK.

Meanwhile the DUP's Christopher Stalford said Northern Ireland had "done well" to offset the worst aspects of welfare reform and called for opinions to be included in the department's evaluation research.

The South Belfast MLA said: "I do not think it is an unreasonable proposition to say that nobody should be better off on benefits that they should be in work.

"That is most strongly felt in working class communities."

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