Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Try a week on welfare, Sinn Fein tells rivals as reforms row rages on

Stormont ministers have been challenged to spend a week living on benefits as the stalemate over welfare reform intensifies

Stormont ministers have been challenged to spend a week living on benefits as the stalemate over welfare reform intensifies.

Sinn Fein argued the exercise would "open the eyes" of other parties to the impact of the shake-up to the benefits system.

But its rival parties dismissed the call as a "stunt", "spin" and "a gimmick", and called on republicans party to "get real".

The DUP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance also reiterated that failure to implement the changes will mean spending cuts, which will hit our most vulnerable.

Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay said he doubted ministers willing to implement the cuts and other advocates of welfare reform would themselves be able to live on benefits. And he threw down the gauntlet to DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy and the Alliance ministers David Ford and Stephen Farry in particular.

"Welfare cuts have forced tens of thousands of people in England into increased poverty, homelessness, desperation and in some cases suicide. Could any of the politicians advocating welfare cuts survive on the income they want to give to the disabled and the unemployed?" he said.

"I'm challenging Simon Hamilton, David Ford, Stephen Farry and Danny Kennedy to spend just one week on the incomes they expect others to live on.

"Perhaps this experience would open their eyes to the real impact of welfare cuts."

But DUP MP Sammy Wilson said: "This is Sinn Fein's latest stunt in an attempt to deflect away from their own lack of leadership and the devastating cuts to public spending that come as a consequence.

"If Sinn Fein are so opposed to welfare reform perhaps they could explain why Martin McGuinness signed up to the very reforms they now rail against?

"They could also explain why they are happy to reduce public services for the most vulnerable in our society because of their ideological intransigence."

And Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson hit out: "For me it sounds like SF spin.

"It's a bit rich for SF to throw out challenges for others when they stand for Westminster and then, for narrow-minded reasons, don't go there.

"Many of my constituents have welfare problems and I know that often people feel they have nowhere else to turn.

"But the real challenge for ministers is not to live on benefits, but to work tirelessly to lift everyone out of benefits.

An Alliance statement said: "This is a cheap publicity gimmick that Daithi McKay has proposed to divert attention from the severe financial consequences for our public services of the refusal of Sinn Fein and the SDLP to implement welfare reform. Unlike Sinn Fein, our MP Naomi Long voted against welfare reform at Westminster, the place to have opposed these changes."

Background

Treasury cuts to our block grant have already begun after failure to agree welfare reform. Some £13m has been lost, with another £87m expected in the next few months.

Almost a year after Work and Pensions chief Mike Penning warned of the consequences, there's still no sign of agreement. Sinn Fein and the SDLP remain opposed to the entire welfare proposals, while the DUP and Alliance say no more concessions from the UK Government are likely.

What Sinn Fein says...

Sinn Fein has long been and remains totally opposed to the British Government's welfare reforms.

It warns the changes would take £450m out of the pockets of some of the most vulnerable families and individuals. With increased seats in the Dail and its eyes on the prize of seats in the Irish Government, it cannot be seen to oppose austerity in Dublin while implementing it in Belfast. The party denies DUP claims that Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness had agreed in principle but was overruled by party president Gerry Adams.

The party accuses the DUP of 'scare-mongering' and pandering to the Conservative/Liberal Democrat agenda in warning the opposition will mean cuts in services. Mr McGuinness and Alex Maskey, chair of the committee which monitors Mr McCausland, have also argued it is becoming clear the reforms are not working in England and the next General Election, just nine months away, could signal their demise. Along with the SDLP, they want all the parties to unite and open new negotiations with London – and ask 'why would we rush headlong into a mess?"

What the DUP says...

DUP MPs voted against the national welfare reforms in Westminster – and, through their Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, negotiated important opt-outs and alterations for how the changes would be handled in Northern Ireland.

Payments would be fortnightly, rather than monthly, to help families budget better, could be received from a nominated man or woman to mitigate fears the money being misspent and housing benefit change would only apply to new clients.

But now they insist there are no more concessions the UK Government is willing to give and accuse Sinn Fein of flying in the face of reality in continuing to oppose the reforms.

They point out that while remaining opposed to welfare reform, the party has begun to implement spending cuts which are the result of the Treasury fines imposed because of the failure to implement welfare reform.

Already some £13m has been taken from Stormont coffers with a further £87m due in the next few months, growing to more than £200m over the next year.

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