Attwood set to challenge welfare cuts
Social Development Minister Alex Attwood has underlined hopes to "scope out" ways of protecting Northern Ireland from Westminster's welfare cuts.
The SDLP minister drew attacks when he first raised the prospect of challenging the 10% cut in housing benefit for people on job seekers allowance for over a year.
Critics said he risked disturbing parity arrangements that harmonise welfare across the UK, which sees £3 billion channelled to Northern Ireland every year.
Mr Attwood has told the Assembly's Social Development Committee he would not jeopardise such vital funding but would seek to "push the limits of parity, get flexibility around parity, go up, round and through parity".
The Minister said: "In terms of parity, as I keep saying, I am not going to put in jeopardy the needs of those in need by recklessly damaging the issue of parity.
"There is the read-across financially of £3 billion a year net advantage to the north, it's something that you just don't mess with.
"But I do believe we should scope out the issue of parity in the longer term.
"And where there are opportunities we should scope them out.
"But I am going to try to push the limits of parity, get flexibility around parity, go up, round and through parity, in a way that comes home to people in the north."
He added: "It is not creating an opportunity for elements of the Treasury in London to go in a direction where, because of us mis-managing the issue of parity, creating opportunities for them to do more damage in terms of of the block (grant) or in terms of the monies that come across every year."
In October the Westminster coalition Government announced an £18 billion reduction in welfare payments detailed in the chancellor's spending review.
The plans include a 10% cut in housing benefit for people on job seekers allowance for over a year.
Mr Attwood said the plan would leave more than 22,000 people in Northern Ireland on reduced housing benefit.
Northern Ireland receives more than £3 billion annually from the Treasury to fund its welfare system.
This subsidy is calculated on the basis that social security benefits in Northern Ireland remain consistent with those in Britain.
The chair of the Social Development Committee, the DUP's Simon Hamilton, previously warned that any interference with the parity arrangements risked a loss of funding, with greater burdens being placed on the already stretched Assembly purse.