Belfast Telegraph

Time for Stormont to make tough choice of painful cuts

By Ed Curran

The biggest shake-up in welfare benefits is about to hit Northern Ireland. One way or another, cuts cannot be avoided which may take as much as £450m out of the local economy.

As community, charity and church groups are warning, the welfare reform will have an impact far beyond the homes of the disabled, mentally ill, disadvantaged and impoverished in our society. You cannot take that amount of money out of circulation without hitting an already ailing economy.

Some people will blame the Tory-dominated Coalition Government, but welfare reform was long overdue. Previous governments failed to address the spiralling costs of benefits and an iniquitous claims culture which is no longer affordable.

Whether we like it or not, and clearly many do not, the bullet is being bitten at last. In spite of long hours of debate and dissent at Westminster, welfare reform is going ahead in Britain.

All that remains to be seen is how the political parties at Stormont face up to the challenge of extending the legislation to Northern Ireland.

Nowhere in the UK is more deserving of welfare support, but also nowhere may abuse the current system as much.

We may be embarrassed, or in denial, that abuse occurs on an unacceptable scale, but if we were truly honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that it does.

Jobseekers and employment allowances; incapacity benefit; housing benefit; income support; disability living allowance and much more - the bill for Northern Ireland is more than £1.5bn.

Incredibly, one-in-10 of the population is on disability living allowance, double the UK average and a percentage which translates into 180,000 people.

Controversy in Britain over welfare reform focussed on capping the level of benefits at £26,000-per-year to try to ensure that no one could be paid more in state benefits than they would earn in gainful employment.

There has to be more of an incentive to work in such circumstances, yet an adequate level of benefit must be available to people who genuinely cannot find a job.

Westminster reform provides for the introduction of a 'universal credit' to replace a range of existing means-tested benefits and tax credits for people of working age, starting from 2013.

The intention is to improve work incentives, simplify the benefits system and tackle administrative complexity.

The real concern is that the genuinely needy in our society will be unduly penalised by the tighter rules. Granted Northern Ireland is a special case, as community and Church leaders are arguing.

We do have more sickness, mental health and disability than other parts of the UK. The Troubles are cited also as an ongoing reason for stress-related illness.

Change is essential because the country cannot afford the looseness of existing welfare arrangements. We also need to ask questions as to whether Northern Ireland has become unduly dependent on state funds.

Can it really be that we can justify paying out disability living allowance at a rate which is double the average for the UK?

Can working in the public services be that much more stressful than other parts of the UK to the extent that the average sickness leave is 10 days a year?

Are local GPs too generous in writing 'stress' notes for their patients to enable them to take time off work?

All of us know people, inside and outside our own families, who are in genuine need of a welfare net but, hand on heart, some may also know of people whose state benefits are less warranted, perhaps even unjustifiable.

Whether the new welfare reform makes any appreciable difference and weeds out more of this latter category remains to be seen.

The pounds are being counted far more carefully than ever in the Treasury with regard to Northern Ireland these days.

The reform of welfare is bound to cause considerable strains within the Stormont Executive between those who support change and others who do not.

To what extent will the Stormont Executive, under pressure from community and Church leaders to protect existing benefits, stray from what has been agreed in the rest of the UK?

One way or another, considerable savings have to be made, which means cuts have to be applied somewhere.

Might free transport for over-60s, or the winter fuel allowance, be subject to means-testing restrictions?

To protect welfare benefits, can Stormont continue to justify a policy of no water rates?

Welfare reform will have far-reaching consequences for tens of thousands of households across this province. How the Stormont Executive and Assembly handles this hot potato will tell us much about the abilities of the folks on the hill to take hard decisions.

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