Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Why dole reform plan is not a work in progress in Northern Ireland

Chancellor George Osborne
Chancellor George Osborne

It was reported yesterday that the Department of Social Development had " ... confirmed that the [George Osborne 'workfare'] proposals were a devolved matter and would be subject to the North's legislative process through the Assembly".

I was reminded of an incident, sparked when an MLA deplored at a public meeting the effect of "Thatcher's anti-union laws" on the ability of public sector workers to resist cutbacks. "But they are not Thatcher's anti-union laws", a member of the audience interjected. "They are the Assembly's."

The MLA gave every appearance of genuine outrage. This was another attempt by malcontents to discredit his party. The laws criminalising solidarity action and limiting pickets were Westminster laws; nothing to do with Stormont. The wrangle had not been resolved by the time the meeting came to an close.

The same phenomenon was on display on The Nolan Show on Monday, when the chairman of the NI Conservatives, Irwin Armstrong, readily confessed that he hadn't been aware that MLAs had authority to take, or leave, Osborne's 'workfare' proposals as they saw fit.

And then there's the fact that somebody on a newsdesk had felt it prudent to contact the DSD on Monday night and check that that's really where control over 'workfare' resides these days – a telling indication of the perceived relevance, or otherwise, of the Stormont institutions to problems which affect people in their day-to-day lives, but which have no obvious connection to their communal identity, or issues of sexual morality.

There can be nobody in Northern Ireland politics confused as to whether parading, or the 'peace centre', fall within the remit of the Assembly. Or abortion rights, or gay marriage.

Similarly, foreign policy is understood by all to be within the competence, so to speak, of Westminster. But putting the boot into the poor to rescue the economy from the depredations inflicted by the Bullingdon Boys and their banker pals – sure who knows who'd be in charge of a thing like that?

It's possible this is about to change. The Welfare Reform Bill – the one with the bedroom tax – currently languishes in limbo. Put out for consultation, it hasn't come back.

DSD minister Nelson McCausland has let it be known it won't be brought before the Assembly again until there's agreement between his party and Sinn Fein on how, or whether, to take it forward.

Perhaps agreement will be reached. Say what you like about the Two Main Parties, they are dab hands at the semantic fudge, the concealed compromise, the ideological double entendre. But it could be the problems they face on the bedroom tax will count for little when compared to handling the latest poisoned chalice handed by Westminster.

Cameron and Osborne (below) may be right, that with the help of the usual suspect media elements they can whip the electorate into such a frenzy of resentment against the undeserving poor that the new measures will give them an electoral boost. But that's not how it's likely to play out here.

The plans to force unemployed people to work for their benefits is based on a series of myths, which tend to explode when looked at for more than a minute.

There is a significant number of families in which no one had worked for two or more generations? In fact, the numbers falling into this category are so tiny as to be almost impossible to measure.

Benefit fraud is a major problem? In fact, the Department of Work and Pensions' own figures put the rate at 0.7%.

The welfare bill has ballooned out of all proportion to need, or to the state's ability to pay?

In fact, the rise in welfare spending can entirely be explained by the effects of the bankers' recession.

And so on. Even in the context of careful fiscal conservatism, the case for Osborne's new measures is threadbare.

On the face of it, the problems associated with bringing an agreed position on the bedroom tax back to the Assembly will be more than matched by the difficulty of agreeing a line on 'workfare'.

The obstacles could be overcome, no doubt, by parties which were getting along swimmingly on other issues. But as things stand?

The point is the Stormont institutions might be brought down, in the end, by failure to agree on a matter that has to do, not with communal identity, but with the divergent interests of different classes.'A poisoned chalice handed by Westminster'

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