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Alex Attwood warned over battle on benefit cuts

Unionist politicians have warned of the dangers of breaking rank with the rest of the UK on benefits as the Social Development Minister vowed he will fight welfare reform moves.

Alex Attwood has said he will oppose Westminster pushing through proposed 10% cuts to Housing Benefit for those receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance for more than 12 months.

He is due to meet with Welfare Minister Lord Freud on Monday to seek more resources and independence for Northern Ireland's welfare system. It is the latest in a series of meetings with Lord Freud in an attempt to convince him to make special allowances for the province when pushing through planned changes to the benefits system.

Speaking at Stormont yesterday, Mr Attwood said it would be “folly” to break from parity.

But he said: ”There are certain proposed changes, such as a 10% cut in Housing Benefit for those on Jobseeker’s Allowance for more than 12 months, that I will want to resolutely oppose, identify how to offset the damage and, indeed, determine if there are ways to avoid implementation here.”

However, Simon Hamilton, DUP chair of the Stormont social development committee, said: “Northern Ireland annually receives in excess of £3bn from HM Treasury to pay our welfare bills. I support seeking flexibility on how changes to the welfare sys

tem affect people in Northern Ireland but I urge caution when it comes to playing fast and loose with that £3bn.

“A breach of the parity principle could result in Northern Ireland having to pick up the tab itself for the cost of the specific breach or even the entire social security bill.”

John McCallister, UUP social development spokesman, said Mr Attwood has taken an “anti-reform stance” which will “abandon thousands of families to a life of welfare dependency”.

He added: “Northern Ireland has always maintained parity with the rest of the UK on social security issues precisely because of the financial implications of attempting to ‘go it alone' — we could not and cannot afford to do this.”

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