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Villiers 'encouraged' at progress to break Stormont deadlock over welfare reform

By Liam Clarke

The Secretary of State has described yesterday's meeting on welfare reform as positive, but has warned that time is short.

She also reiterated to the five Executive parties that there would be no more money from London to enable us "to run a more expensive welfare system".

Ms Villiers chaired the meeting after returning from America where she spent the St Patrick's break discussing the situation here with the administration, diplomats and other groups with an interest here. She was the only Northern Ireland leader to hold discussions with President Obama. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were not invited because of the lack of progress.

Ms Villiers went to London last night but will return next week when she may chair more talks.

She said: "Today's meeting was constructive and I am encouraged that progress is being made."

But she added. "It is essential that a resolution is reached quickly on this dispute over how the welfare provisions of the agreement will be implemented, so that the legislation on changes to the welfare system in Northern Ireland can complete its passage through the Assembly".

It is understood that the Assembly would have to be recalled next week or the week after at the latest to pass through welfare reform legislation. If not, fines of around £2m a week will continue and the institution will collapse after June if some way is not found to pay the bill.

Delay will disappoint our friends abroad, Ms Villiers said: "This was the strong message heard this week in Washington from the President, Vice President and right across the administration. I urge the parties to continue working together to maintain the positive progress made so far in implementing the Stormont House Agreement.

"If this dispute is not resolved it would jeopardise the whole package, including the £2bn additional spending power, new institutions on the past, and the transfer of powers over corporation tax. It would also see a revival of the serious budget crisis which hit Stormont in the autumn" she added.

Ms Villiers, the Prime Minister and Ivan Lewis, the shadow secretary of state, have all made clear there will be no more money from London to subsidise our welfare system. This was spelt out by Simon Hamilton, the Finance Minister, who attended the stock taking meeting.

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