A Sinn Fein Press release calling for a delay to welfare reform legislation has detonated an explosive row in the Executive.
There were angry scenes around the table as the DUP and Sinn Fein clashed openly over changes to benefits.
First Minister Peter Robinson rounded on Education Minister John O’Dowd and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, accusing them of planning to stand “beating their chests” while his party pushed through necessary legislation.
The problems arose when Sinn Fein sought to defer the Welfare Bill tabled for debate at Stormont next week — forcing a delay the DUP believes will leave a black hole in the budget.
The acrimony started when DUP members read aloud from a Sinn Fein Press release in which Alex Maskey said the legislation “will mean Tory-inspired welfare cuts are imposed on people here”.
“Things detonated from there, Arlene (Foster, Enterprise Minister) was banging the table and Nelson (McCausland) was also furious,” a source said.
Key features of the reforms include a universal credit to cover a range of benefits, a personal independence payment reassessed every three years to replace Disability Living Allowance, and housing benefit reforms.
Social development committee chairman Mr Maskey said: “It is our view that the Assembly has a duty to stand up for low-income families and those on benefit who are being directly targeted by many of these measures.”
The South Belfast MLA said Sinn Fein will be bringing forward a proposal to the Assembly on Tuesday to defer the Welfare
Reform Bill until significant amendments are made to it.
But the DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said that only last week Sinn Fein ministers had agreed that the Bill could be brought to the Assembly.
“I am totally surprised by this Sinn Fein welfare reform bombshell,” he said.
The DUP warned that crisis-hit families could be in danger if the Assembly delays implementation of the welfare shake-up.
The Executive has agreed a new discretionary payments scheme designed to replace the existing Social Fund — which makes crisis loans to people — from next year.
Mr Wilson said this would now be in danger, and claimed that if the Bill is not cleared by the Assembly to be in place by April 2013, then “immediately 250,000 people who benefit each year from the Social Fund will find themselves with no means of support”.
Welfare reform initiated by Westminster is designed to make the benefits system less complex and less expensive to administer. Westminster ministers have argued that their aim is to help people trapped in benefit dependency. But the changes are expected to hit Northern Ireland harder than any other UK region outside London, because of higher numbers here in receipt of Disability Living Allowance and a higher proportion of families with children.